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Using relaxation techniques to improve the health of older adults

Some health challenges common in older adults can be addressed by using relatively safe, simple, and effective relaxations techniques. Anxiety, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, and rheumatoid arthritis all can be better managed by learning and applying relaxation techniques. And these same techniques are very helpful as well in combating the stress of those who act as caregivers for the elderly.

What are relaxation techniques?

Relaxation techniques include a number of practices such as progressive relaxation, guided imagery, biofeedback, self-hypnosis, and deep breathing exercises. The goal is similar in all: to produce the body’s natural relaxation response, characterized by slower breathing, lower blood pressure, and a feeling of increased well-being.

Meditation and practices that include meditation with movement, such as yoga and tai chi, can also promote relaxation.

Stress management programs commonly include relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques have also been studied to see whether they might be of value in managing various health problems.

The importance of practice

Relaxation techniques are skills, and like other skills, they need practice. People who use relaxation techniques frequently are more likely to benefit from them. Regular, frequent practice is particularly important if you’re using relaxation techniques to help manage a chronic health problem. Continuing use of relaxation techniques is more effective than short-term use.

Relaxation techniques that you can try

Autogenic training
In autogenic training, you learn to concentrate on the physical sensations of warmth, heaviness, and relaxation in different parts of your body.

Biofeedback-assisted relaxation
Biofeedback techniques measure body functions and give you information about them so that you can learn to control them. Biofeedback-assisted relaxation uses electronic devices to teach you to produce changes in your body that are associated with relaxation, such as reduced muscle tension.

Deep breathing exercises
This technique involves focusing on taking slow, deep, even breaths.

Guided imagery
For this technique, people are taught to focus on pleasant images to replace negative or stressful feelings. Guided imagery may be self-directed or led by a practitioner or a recording.

Progressive relaxation
This technique, also called Jacobson relaxation or progressive muscle relaxation, involves tightening and relaxing various muscle groups. Progressive relaxation is often combined with guided imagery and breathing exercises.

Self-hypnosis
In self-hypnosis programs, people are taught to produce the relaxation response when prompted by a phrase or nonverbal cue (called a “suggestion”).

How can relaxation techniques help?

Researchers have evaluated relaxation techniques and determined that those techniques could play a role in managing a variety of health conditions that affect the elderly, such as the following:

Anxiety
Studies have shown relaxation techniques may reduce anxiety in people with ongoing health problems such as heart disease or inflammatory bowel disease, and in those who are having medical procedures such as breast biopsies or dental treatment. Relaxation techniques have also been shown to be useful for older adults with anxiety.

On the other hand, relaxation techniques may not be the best way to help people with generalized anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder is a mental health condition, lasting for months or longer, in which a person is often worried or anxious about many things and finds it hard to control the anxiety. Studies indicate that long-term results are better in people with generalized anxiety disorder who receive a type of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy than in those who are taught relaxation techniques.

Depression
An evaluation of 15 studies concluded that relaxation techniques are better than no treatment in reducing symptoms of depression but are not as beneficial as psychological therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Heart disease
In people with heart disease, studies have shown relaxation techniques can reduce stress and anxiety and may also have beneficial effects on physical measures such as heart rate.

High blood pressure
Stress can lead to a short-term increase in blood pressure, and the relaxation response has been shown to reduce blood pressure on a short-term basis, allowing people to reduce their need for blood pressure medication. However, it is uncertain whether relaxation techniques can have long-term effects on high blood pressure.

Rheumatoid arthritis
There is limited evidence that biofeedback or other relaxation techniques might be valuable additions to treatment programs for rheumatoid arthritis.

Keep in mind the following when practicing relaxation techniques

  • Relaxation techniques are generally considered safe for healthy people. However, occasionally, people report unpleasant experiences such as increased anxiety, intrusive thoughts, or fear of losing control.
  • There have been rare reports that certain relaxation techniques might cause or worsen symptoms in people with epilepsy or certain psychiatric conditions, or with a history of abuse or trauma. People with heart disease should talk to their health care provider before doing progressive muscle relaxation.

 

Information gathered from the National Institute of Health and the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health

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