Relax, I can't do it.
December 26, 2010 5:03 PM   Subscribe

I cannot relax. I think that I am relaxed only to find that every muscle in my body is clenched tight. My mouth, butt, thighs, hands, neck, get the picture. It carries over into my sleep. I need help relaxing, please.

For example, I am a bookaholic. What is better than spending an hour or two on the sofa (with the dogs as foot warmers) reading a book? Should be relaxing, right? Not. I will eventually realize that my shoulders have crept up towards my chin and my toes are curled, my butt is clenched, my back is in need of stretching AND boy, do I need to breathe. What is up with holding one's breath when you don't need to?

Why am I a ball of tension? I live by myself. No kids. No outside pressure. Even when I sleep it doesn't go away. I toss and turn which causes me to wake up every 15 minutes or so. I try to do some relaxation techniques but in the morning my palms are dented by my fingernails I am asking for advice.
posted by futz to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, I totally hear you. My body does that (I have some panic and anxiety issues). Solution for me, as much as I freakin' hate to admit it, is exercise. Walks, yoga class, bike rides. I am, like you, a reader. I'm also pretty sedentary, and exercise is something I have to force myself do (which is why I primarily disguise it as a form of transportation so I don't notice I'm exercising). I think it's some kind of endorphins/brain chemistry thing.
posted by goblinbox at 5:07 PM on December 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Can you take up swimming? Exercise is great in general and a whole-body gentle workout, like swimming, can relax you in wonderful all-over ways.
posted by The otter lady at 5:26 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by Patbon at 5:27 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Its vital that you observe your breathing (through the nose and not the mouth) - nice, slow and even. Watch your stomach rise....and then fall. This is the most important thing I can tell you as a life long anxiety/body tension veteran.

Slow down your breathing and, when you are particularly tense, count your slow breaths. This is a very good thing to do when you can't sleep. Sometimes I count all the way to 500 - but I usually don't have to to as I've drifted off to sleep.

Breath observing and counting are tools that you can use all your life to offset anxiety.

A short cut I use for tension release is a hot bath and/or a heating pad (low) on my lower back and rump.
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 5:28 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd first do a close examination of my emotions. You said no outside pressure, but that doesn't mean you're not stressing or angry about something. If you are, you'll want to learn how to cope with and/or reduce it, or do some problem solving.

Exercising seconded.

Last, have you ever tried doing a progressive relaxation? You lay in a relaxed pose, start at your forehead, and going down your face/head and body tense and then relax each muscle group. The goal is to have all of your muscles relaxed at the end. Doing that a few times helped me be more aware of when my body was tense, and made it easier to quickly relax in various situations.

Practice being more aware of your body. Breathe out and relax frequently.
posted by moira at 5:30 PM on December 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yes, exercise is huge. (It hardly matters what kind of exercise, as long it's strenuous. Walking and mild jogging won't do it. If you can talk while you're doing it it's not strenuous enough, in my experience.)

In addition, when you catch yourself, try relaxing your body one part at a time. Start with your scalp, then your face, then your neck, then your shoulders, each arm and hand, etc. You might not even get down your whole body because it takes a while, but if you take a few minutes to do it deliberately part by part, you should get somewhere.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:35 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks to everyone that has responded. Yes, I have tried all sorts of head to toe breathing techniques. I appreciate all of the advice but sometimes I find that if one concentrates on all these relaxation exercises it backfires. Too much focus can be self defeating. Maybe I need to put more effort into it.

moira, good insight.

Otter is on to something here. Being in the water is the most freeing feeling. Hugs Otter. I wish that I was an otter. One of the coolest animals on the planet.
posted by futz at 5:41 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Soak in hot water. Muscles HAVE to relax in hot water.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:00 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

My mum does a combination of the above - vigorous swim, then a long soak in the jacuzzi (or time in the sauna if the jacuzzi is full).
posted by Coobeastie at 6:14 PM on December 26, 2010

Can you get to a pool? I am like you. I exhaust myself with tension! I find just floating in water really helps. I moved to Maui 20 years ago for the ocean! But a pool can be just as restful. Just go in and float or wade around, don't turn it into a ordeal. It is really helpful if you can immerse your whole body and get your head and face wet.

I also find listening to thunderstorms or rain storms relax me. You can get mp3s or CDs.
posted by fifilaru at 6:27 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just read your other posts and comments.

I think you have something fairly spectacularly weird going on based this clenching (which continues or even worsens at night), your diagnosis of fibromyalgia with a surprising absence of many of the most usual symptoms, and most especially based on your three dislocations of major joints, both shoulders and a hip, which required surgery to repair.

I think you have an underlying seizure disorder.

Here is the Google snippet of an article I wish was not as hidden behind a pay wall as it is, but which I chose because it stated the relationship I wanted to present to you in starkest terms:

The presence of bilateral posterior shoulder dislocations without an obvious causal mechanism should suggest underlying seizure disorder, ...

I used the search terms seizure disorder dislocation to find this article and many others of similar import you might want to glance over.

I urge you to get an appointment one way or another with a neurologist specializing in seizure disorders.
posted by jamjam at 6:45 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

The biggest probable factor is that you're probably in bad ergonomic positions for reading or your daily life. Is your spine straight? Is your neck? Do you hold the books up, or rest them on a table?

When we sit/lay/whatever at wack positions, it seems normal and "not much work", especially if we're engrossed in a book, the internet, whatever. Thing is, you're asking your body to do "not much work" for hours at a time. The body actually has evolved in a lot of useful ways to work at keeping us upright and not a puddle on the floor, and when we tilt at weird angles, for long periods, we tire out the muscles and they get stuck in contracted positions - tightness.

So, that's a long term thing to fix, but consider it, and also make sure you adjust positions regularly. Also, if you're not doing even light exercise, get to doing light exercise - the body needs you to use the range of motion you want it to have and it needs you to do minimal strength exercises to be able to keep it's ergonomic position.

Shorter term things:
1. Are you hydrated? Make sure you have enough water!
2. Gentle stretching. Emphasis - gentle. You want your normal range of motion, you're not trying to go beyond it.
3. Massage. Professional would be best, but if you have a friend/family member who will do it decently enough, go with that.
4. Self massage. Go buy some of those old school pink rubber balls. Put two down on the floor, and lay on them so they're on either side of your spine. Adjust them to different places- your neck, shoulders, hips, move them further out or closer in, put them at diagonals, and try raising one leg, or the other to adjust the pressure.
posted by yeloson at 6:48 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: yeloson, I consider myself old school...but what rubber balls are you talking about? Thanks for the good advice. I really appreciate it.
posted by futz at 6:53 PM on December 26, 2010

Nthing what everybody else has said about exercise, breathing exercises, hot baths, etc.

Also, it's important to remember that relaxation is a habit, just like your tension is a habit. If you wait until you're already tense to try relaxing, then it's difficult. On the other hand, if you practice your yoga, your conscious breathing, and your relaxation exercises on a daily basis, then relaxation becomes your default state and it's much easier to undo any tension that does creep in.
posted by tdismukes at 7:10 PM on December 26, 2010

Well, jamjam makes some very good points about your other posts. Hie thee to a neurologist, futz!
posted by goblinbox at 7:14 PM on December 26, 2010

2nding massage
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:18 PM on December 26, 2010

Cynic, stressed New Yorker who found guided meditation: just little moments to be aware and relax. I suggest the Meditation Oasis podcast or listen online at:
posted by eatdonuts at 7:28 PM on December 26, 2010

+1 everything yeloson said. One addition: for self massage look into a foam roller (can be had for $25 or so) and a tennis ball.

I've used some of the resources below for addressing my posture and imbalance issues. They are targeted at athletes but it will apply to anyone who has spent too much time hunched over a keyboard or desk (i.e. 97% of americans today):

Also -- move more! Get up every half hour or so at least, and walk around or change positions.
posted by rsanheim at 7:44 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Everyone's suggestions are excellent, but try this too: When you sit down to read or lay down to sleep, go through your whole body and tense every limb and muscle one at a time and then relax them. Flex your foot, and let it go. Flex your calves, or put your legs up for a minute in a way that is hard to hold them, then flop them down. Clench your butt cheeks and then relax. Tighten your abs and then breathe out with a sigh. Tense up your shoulders and then relax them. Notice your jaw and the little muscles in your face and forehead an tighten and relax them. Go back to your feel/legs/arms if they already tensed up since you relaxed them. Going through my body and actively making every muscle group relax makes me feel so floppy all over. I find myself tensing up less after doing this, plus it feels good.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 7:45 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think you have an underlying seizure disorder.

I have some kind of weird neuro-y, migraine-y thing going on (that's an official diagnosis btw). I've never had a seizure per se but I had a lot of muscle tension and weakness/ crookedness issues that have largely gone away with a very low dose of anti-seizure medication. I'd consider seeing a neurologist if I were you, or maybe getting a second opinion.
posted by fshgrl at 7:50 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all. A cursory glace at the favorites tells me that I am not alone. Thanks for the advice.
posted by futz at 7:56 PM on December 26, 2010

Tennis balls are good substitutes for 'old school pink rubber balls', according to my brother. You could try that.
posted by Xany at 7:58 PM on December 26, 2010

Are you on medication of any sort? I took an SSRI for the past year for depression, and one side effect it had was this sort of tensing up of muscles whenever I was sitting or lying down still. I've recently come off it, and the effect went away. Are you on anything that could be having a similar effect?
posted by lollusc at 8:45 PM on December 26, 2010

These are the rubber balls I'm thinking of - toy stores often carry them for $1-2. While tennis balls work, these simply work better. They're a little smaller than a tennis ball, and softer. I use these for myself and my clients that I work on.

You can also put them between yourself and the back of your chair at work or at home to help relax the muscles around your spine, while you're doing stuff.
posted by yeloson at 8:47 PM on December 26, 2010

besides all the other great ideas here, you might consider taking magnesium citrate (should be the citrate form, not just magnesium.) when our bodies are shooting adrenaline a lot, they can run low on certain ions that will help our muscles to release contractions. i always find that if i take some of this, it reallllllly helps me stop clenching my teeth. IANAD. talk to someone at the health food store.
posted by andreapandrea at 10:41 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with everything that's been posted so far (massages, exercise, etc.), and wanted to throw out a lesser solution: wine. I find a glass or two of wine at the end of the day makes my body relax in ways I did not expect.
posted by polyester.lumberjack at 11:44 PM on December 26, 2010

trigger point rollers and balls will beat your muscles into relaxed submission. think of it as self-induced deep tissue massage. absolutely incredible.
posted by Señor Pantalones at 1:54 AM on December 27, 2010

Echoing andreapandrea's recommendation of magnesium tablets.

I find magnesium tablets make such a difference to my neck/shoulder/lower back tension, and also to reduce leg cramps and restless legs syndrome.
posted by with the singing green stars as our guide at 3:05 AM on December 27, 2010

Do you have access to a treadmill? I find trying to beat my distance record for five minutes on the treadmill is good for destressing/removing tension. Plus, it only takes five minutes!
posted by dougrayrankin at 5:05 AM on December 27, 2010

The classic text on relaxation was written by Jacobson in 1934. It available on Amazon or you can download a pdf.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:13 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Re. the progressive relaxation - I find they only work for me if I'm listening to a recording of someone else running through the exercise, rather than just thinking it to myself - if it's just me, I don't take myself seriously enough for it to work. Also, doing it regularly improves things. For a while I listened to the same one every night for weeks, maybe months, and eventually found I could actually 'play' the recording to myself from memory in my head because I'd heard it so often, and relax by myself. But mostly I needed the external instruction. Also nthing exercise.
posted by penguin pie at 6:30 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would encourage you to follow advice to look for possible medical reasons for this. I have had medical conditions which muscle tension was a symptom of, and all the meditation and massage in the world couldn't do more than relieve it for a very short time (like an hour or two). Finding and treating the underlying conditions has made a huge difference. I'm not suggesting you ignore other advice; relaxation exercises, good ergonomics, massage, muscle relaxers, and so on all help with symptom relief. But for me at least, they aren't fixes. For me, doing all that stuff while also working with my doctor to find and solve medical problems has been really key.
posted by not that girl at 7:46 AM on December 27, 2010

Are you on any medications? Some of them can cause tensing up, clenching jaws, etc. as side effects.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:04 PM on December 27, 2010

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