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Category: Relaxation Techniques

Squeeze Stress Away. Thank you, Dorothy Sarnoff

Squeeze Stress Away. Thank you, Dorothy Sarnoff

We have talked about the power of muscles before. At that time we focused on the profound and positive affects of relaxing muscles.  If we turn off muscle tension, we quiet a large collection of heavy working brain wiring. That tells the brain, “Hey, nothing much is happening….relax.”

This time, we will look at the power we can have over stress when muscles are strongly flexed.

The Sarnoff Squeeze

Singer and actress Dorothy Sarnoff (NYT bio) noticed that Yul Brynner was up to some strange stuff during breaks when they performed together on Broadway in the King and I. Brenner would push hard against a wall back stage, grunting like he wanted to shove it over. “What are you doing?” Sarnoff asked. “It helps me control my nervousness,” Brynner explained.

When Sarnoff gave a try later, she found it indeed worked. Pushing hard against a wall pulled her away from stage jitters and gave her a burst of energy that made her feel strong and ready to go.

Knowing that pushing a wall is not always practical, she searched for a more portable and discret technique. Her solution came to be known as the Sarnoff Squeeze.

-Standing or sitting, slowly breathe in and as you are about to exhale, contract  the “6-pack abs” muscle group. Exhale slowly and steadily as you continue to squeeze. You don’t have to hold your breath. When you are done exhaling, let go of your muscles and  inhale normally. Repeat a few more times.

-Assess how you feel. More calm? More focused? More energized? If not, repeat a few more times contracting and squeezing what Sarnoff called the “vital triangle” muscles.

The Big Squeeze Explored and Expanded

Yul Brynner and Dorothy Sarnoff reasoned that hard muscle use stopped the flow of stress hormones from being released and that is why the calming effect came on. Actually, the shift in mind-body states the actors experienced were caused by a change in blood pressure. In the late 1960’s, the U.S. Air Force commissioned Dr. Ronald L. Wiley, a cardiopulmonary physiologist, to be part of a study to help increase G-tolerance in F-16 pilots. Big changes in acceleration experienced in military flying causes dips in blood pressure to the point that pilots will pass out. Wiley found that he could increase g-force tolerance by teaching pilots to conduct handgrip exercises as they were going into high g-force turns.  Muscle tightening causes blood pressure to rise and to get to the higher pressure, the heart has got to pump faster. This explains Sarnoff’s “burst of energy and strength”.

More recent research on muscle tightening also may explain the effects of the Sarnoff Squeeze.  Iris Hung and Aparna Labroo found (study) that when study participants tightened muscles, willpower increased and the experience of  pain decreased. Additional research hints that any muscle group might work because clenched calves and tight biceps worked as well as clenched fists.

Anxious or angry? Try a Squeeze: Sarnoff’s 6-pack abs, a fist, a bicep, a calf, or other muscle groups of your choosing.


Scientific American Podcast on muscles for willpower – Episode 1065 October 20, 2010

Never Be Nervous Again audio book narrated by Dorothy Sarnoff at – read

Inside or Outside? Where to Put Your Focus

Inside or Outside? Where to Put Your Focus

We need an inside/outside strategy in our back pocket, ready to employ whenever our stress level is too high, or potentially headed that way.

An inside strategy would involve turning inward to a large, small or moderate degree, and then doing something there.  It could be doing visualization of a calming place, person, object, pet, song, etc. It could involve watching our breathing, or doing a body scan to see how we are feeling emotionally and bodily (and both). Frequently, this is the strategy we use when something is concerning “out there”. Sometimes a meeting is not going well, or we are in the dentist’s chair, or we need to withdraw from the bustle around us.

There are times, however, going inside is not the best strategy.  For instance, if we are trapped in repetitive negative thoughts such as worry and anger, going inside where those thoughts/feelings are flying about, and introducing a counter to that can be too challenging.  Going outside, can be the direction to go.

Going outside can distance ourselves from our mental/heart chatter. Simple attention to our surroundings can help.  Listening to the soundscape, for instance, pulls us from our troubles within. Look deeply at colors, differences in sizes of objects, light and shadow; feeling the wind, the movement of your feet; anything can keep us outside of your inner rumblings. Activity, especially activity with some challenge to it, will engage a great deal of our brain and reduce at least some of the energy going to our inner landscape. Of course, there are the well developed practices: mindfulness, Tai Chi, and Open Focus.

Next Steps: Aim to master a set of inner and outer target methods; experiment with them a great deal to make them your own; do a quick practice session every day. Use as needed. If one direction doesn’t help, switch directions.

Quieting Inner Chatter and Dimming Inner Visions – Which Muscles to Relax

Quieting Inner Chatter and Dimming Inner Visions – Which Muscles to Relax

Edmund Jacobson gave us Progressive Relaxation to calm our minds through quieting our muscles. In his life-long process of refining Progressive Relaxation he found a profound, rapid, and easy way for getting control of two disturbing activities that we all have: inner chatter and troubling inner visions.  These two processes keep us up at night, locks us in negative ruminations, and blasting ourselves with visions of past events or worries about the future. If we can get free or at least reduce their influence, our stress levels will plunge and we will naturally move into rest and into positivity.

How to Quiet Inner Chatter

When we chat to ourselves in our heads, we actually use many of the same muscles we use to speak out loud. Talking is so well practiced that we tighten throat, tongue, and facial ways that  are unconscious until we learn to spot their movement. Try this: take a minute or more to completely relax your jaw and your tongue. Really relax them. Now introduce some strong thoughts. If you take enough time relaxing the tongue, engaging inner chatter, relaxing, etc. it will become apparent that Jacobson was onto something. Next try relaxing the tongue and then bring in milder thoughts. This is more subtle, but small movement or tightness can be felt on a portion of the tongue.

Jacobson found he could quiet the mind by reversing the brain-muscle process. If he could get muscles to quiet (relax), this would cause the brain to notice and would respond by quieting. So, when being bugged by pesky inner critics or endless self-chatter, rather than engaging with that chatter to try to get it be quiet, go through the following relaxation process. Quiet muscles will lead to a quiet(er) mind.

1. Relax your tongue; relax your lips; relax your jaw; relax the front of your throat outside and work your way inside; relax the muscles that link your throat down to the top of your chest. Repeat the process as many times as you can to quiet the mind. Once you get to a good quiet condition, enjoy and rest.

2. Repeat this whole process several times until you find inner chatter has decreased or even disappeared.

3. Do keep some awareness on your tongue. Tension in your tongue will give you the first clue that inner chatter is starting to creep back in.

How to Dim Troubling Inner Visions

Using the same, reverse brain-muscle relationship process, when troubled by too many or disturbing visualizations, do this:

1. Relax the muscles of your forehead; relax the muscles around your eyes including your eyelids; relax the muscles of your eyes.

2. Repeat this whole process several times until you find your inner visions have decreased or even disappeared.

+  +  +  +  +  +  +

Practice, practice, practice this very simple but powerful technique so it is always available to you when you need it. Especially give it a try each night as you prepare for sleep. Also try for breaks at work.

Thank you, again, Dr. Edmund Jacobson.

Muscle Man, Edmund Jacobson

Muscle Man, Edmund Jacobson

Edmund Jacobson devoted his life to muscles. This journey started when he was in a fire at the age of 10. He made it through the fire unscathed but he was marked deeply by it anyway. He observed previously calm adults switch into full emergency mode in seconds.  How was this possible, he wondered.  What was panic, anxiety, and courageous decisiveness in the midst of crisis?

As Jacobson moved through his schooling, eventually ending up as a professor, he didn’t find many answers to his questions about stress, tension, and emergency response. Early 20th century science just couldn’t provide this understanding so, he would have to do the research himself. He quickly ended up studying bodily reactions to stimuli and from there, muscles.  He carefully noted adults and children as the moved, sat, relaxed, and in sleep (he discovered rapid eye movement dream sleep decades before researchers who get all the credit for it picked up on it). When that wasn’t good enough, he persuaded Bell Telephone Labs to create very sensitive meters to detect small electrical movements in muscle fibers as low as a millionth of a volt.

All of this work did not lead Jacobson to his goal: the heart of emergency response as he had expected, but in the opposite direction, to the world of total relaxation.

In Pursuit of Scientific Relaxation

Applying what he had learned to himself and to some of his patients, he found he had discovered a method that allowed anyone, without any special hypnotic suggestion, medicine, or other external measures, to deeply relax at will. What a person had to do was learn about the brain-muscle relationship that is literally hard-wired into our bodies and take deliberate actions to shift what is happening within that relationship.

We all know that the brain can command certain muscles in the body to get us out of bed and keep us going until the end of the day. Of course, all manner of activities are done with the help of the muscles under brain control as we move throughout that day. That was well known. What Jacobson saw, was less observed: the muscles could command the brain.  When muscles are active, at some level of tension, messages are being sent to the brain that the muscle indeed is doing something. That something can be an action we are aware of, say brushing our teeth, or the action can be something we are not really aware of: clenching teeth, holding tight neck muscles, locking down forehead muscles, etc. Unconsciously producing and holding muscle tension is a perfect avenue for chronic stress to creep into the body.

What would happen, Jacobson wondered, if a person who experienced long term stress learned to relax their muscles on a regular basis?  A person could do this sort of work at the end of the day to unwind (actually, un-tense).  There would be a double effect: unconscious muscle holding would be stopped and in turn, the mind would be quieted by the lack of muscle communications being sent to the brain from the muscles. Indeed, Jacobson found and proved, released muscles lead to a quieter brain and many people benefit from this work.  Jacobson had developed a scientifically based method (in contrast to hypnosis and other methods being practiced at the time), that could be reliably called upon to help people: reduce the experience of pain, get to sleep, and loosen the grip of stress. Jacobson called his program of scientific relaxation, Progressive Relaxation.

Today’s “progressive relaxation” is not Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation

The snag with Jacobson’s method was not any problem with the scientific validity of the process but the length of time Jacobson would spend with each patient. His full program involved, carefully teaching a patient to more and more fully release tension in muscle groups. Jacobson was serious about this learning and expected patients to spend at least one hour a week with him for up to a year!

Showing up at least once a week for a year is not everyone’s thing. Patients and professionals looked for something shorter and when they didn’t find it, they created it. Out of this press for time has come “progressive relaxation” that is fast but in most cases, not deeply effective in teaching people the differences between tension and full relaxation. Today’s approach still progresses through the major muscle groups but doesn’t spend much time on any of the them. Worse yet, those who are less informed, see “progressive relaxation” sort like using a punching bag to work out frustrations. They tell clients to tense a muscle group or a bunch of muscle groups, tense, hold and then release.  That’s it.  The person instructing the patient assumes the patient has just burned off some tension and is in the glow of relaxation.  I hear Jacobson spinning in his grave now.

Much of Jacobson’s approach is lost to our need to rush. The information is there in his many books but what is missing is taking the time to learn what he spent his life uncovering.  A great loss, indeed. Perhaps the gap is filled some what by the rapidly expanding interest in yoga, but that doesn’t quite catch all that Edmund Jacobson meant us to know. It is our intention to do our best to reintroduce the power and potential of the Muscle Man’s work here, in occasional posts, as this blog goes forward. The Muscle Man may be gone but Edmund Jacobson’s powerful scientific technique remains.

Easy Starts: How to Jump Into Meditation

Easy Starts: How to Jump Into Meditation

I’m frequently asked what are the best books for starting meditation. I have settled on a short list of resources. Two of them are listed here:

The Calm Technique: Meditation Without Magic or Mysticism – Australian Paul Wilson came out with this book some time ago but it remains one of my favorites because it is so clear, simple, and precise in its introduction to breathing and mantra meditation. You will find this highly valuable book priced from 1 cent to about 2 bucks. Amazon link

Unplug for an Hour, a Day, or a Weekend: Create a Home Sanctuary with 32 Contemplation Cards, Companion Guidebook, 2 CDs of Guided Meditations is a complete look at mindfulness meditation. It comes in a fun format of: a booklet, two CDs, and “contemplation cards”. Perhaps I’m a sucker for this sort of packaging but it helps make the whole thing feel like an all encompassing experience. At any rate, this box of meditation is grossly under priced ($10) given what Sharon Salzberg includes in her instruction. Amazon link

The Smile Powerhouse

The Smile Powerhouse

Photos of smiling nuns taken when they came into religious service when they were in their early 20s, reveal which will live the longest. The right type of smile, wrong type of smile, it makes a difference.

While conducting research on the physiology of facial expressions in the mid-19th century, french physician Guillaume Duchenne identified two distinct types of smiles. A “Duchenne smile” involves contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes). A non-Duchenne smile involves only the zygomatic major muscle.  Many researchers believe that Duchenne smiles indicate genuine spontaneous emotions since most people cannot voluntarily contract the outer portion of the orbicularis oculi muscle. The young women who were fated to be long-living and healthier nuns, wore the Duchenne smiles in their entry photos.

Fake smiles, on the other hand point a person in the direction of greater stress and greater illness. “A study of city bus drivers led by a Michigan State University business scholar found that the drivers who fake smiles at work worsen their mood throughout their day, which in turn affects their productivity. The problem is that smiling for the sake of smiling can lead to emotional exhaustion and withdrawal. Women were hurt more than men by the fake smiles, which the researchers attribute to the fact that women are both expected to and do show greater emotional intensity and expressiveness than men.” Link to article

Meditation masters have picked up on the power of the smile. Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh makes a simple smile part of his basic mindfulness practice (link to article)  Modern Taoist and teacher, Mantak Chia carries smiling instruction further by having us smile to the many parts of our body using an actual smile and our mind’s eye. Each part gets a smile and the opportunity to bath in good will and relaxation. Link to article on Chia’s methods  Link to Chia’s book, The Inner Smile

Go Wide Focus – An instant stress reduction technique

Go Wide Focus – An instant stress reduction technique

This is an instant stress reduction technique in that it can be brought out, anywhere, anytime and–if practiced–will bring stress levels down very quickly. Stress comes down, but not to zero but to a level where you will have more wiggle room.

There are two secrets to this technique. First, it goes completely opposite of what your body and mind has been created to do when you are under a little or a lot of stress. Stress involves a narrowing of our focus. Our work shrinks down to what is of greatest interest to us at the moment. That can be worry, jumping out of the way of a bus, or trying to decide: “Do I flee, fight, or freeze?”

If you are jumping out of the way of a bus there is little you can do to control your stress narrowing of the mind. Nor would you want to! You are on a mission to save your life. If you are in less dire situations such as about to go into a job interview/review or are caught in the web of worry, then this is a good time to take your mind in the opposite direction.  Widening your focus, even for a few moments, will have an impact. Your attention will open up and your mind will open up. Then you might see a new way, or you might be able to catch your breath which will give you a chance to ground yourself in the moment and in your personal values.

The Technique

Right now, stop reading and expand your awareness to the space around you. You can either listen to or see actual things in the space or you can use your memory to flit from one point in the room and then to another and to another. This latter approach, gives you a sense of how big the space is. As you bring up memories to various points in the room such as the lamp in the corner behind you, the desk across the room, the doorway to the left, and the ceiling, your mind throws in details such as distance from you to these objects. This provides an approximation of the size of the space.

Hold that awareness for a few seconds or longer if you can. How do you feel? Your narrowed stress focus will be tugging at you to go back to where it was but just keep working the technique. Eventually, you probably will hit a balance of narrowed focus and Go Wide Focus.

You can go even wider if you have the chance. Think of a larger area just outside, perhaps the building, or the block. Or really open things up and think of the size of the sky. Anything to break you from the fixation of your stress-induced narrowed focus.

Look for a preferred way of doing this. You might find getting a fix on your immediate surroundings is the more powerful and effective way to go. Others will prefer very grand vistas (either visible or in the mind’s eye). Find yours.

Of course, you can flit between being in the narrowed focus to the Going Wide Focus and back again. You will not lose track with what’s going on around you or what you are there to do. What you will appreciate is the sudden easing of the stress so you can think and feel a bit more freely and be ready to explore new options when they pop up in your mind or appear before you.

Found Additional Resources:

Big Sky Meditation with Bells – Spirit Rock/Dharma Seed recording for streaming and downloading – go to Website – This presenter uses the Going Wide Focus technique and applies it to a meditation retreat surrounding for an extended time period.

The No Excuses Massage

The No Excuses Massage

Regular, full-body, massage has built-in barriers that keep many people from getting the benefits of touch. First, the cost. Second the nudity (even when it is strategically covered by towels). Thirdly, the time commitment. Small obstacles for some but major obstacles for many, many people.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, “In July 2008, 45 percent of women and 21 percent of men reported having a massage in the past five years.” There appears to be a gap here in terms of using this form of relaxation technique, especially for men.

Chair massage is a great avenue to getting touch relaxation with extremely minimal cost. Chair massages cost between $15 to $25 with times ranging from 15 to 20 minutes. You get back, neck, arm, hands, and sometimes head coverage. No disrobing, simply sit on the chair by resting your knees forward on a special support and rest your face on an oval-shaped pad. That’s it.

Finding chair massage can be tricky. Massage studios emphasize full-body massage so you frequently can’t find chair massage offered in those locations. Where else? Some chains like Massage Envy offer this service, some chair massage practitioners locate in high business areas, and others are found in smaller salons. If you don’t see anything popping up when you put your city or zip code into a search engine, ask around. Ask at salons and ask at mid-level to higher-end hotels. Keep searching because once you find chair massage near you, it will become one of your regular things to do. Barriers removed.

Secret Stress Control Method #1

Secret Stress Control Method #1

Shhh….no one needs to know that you are reducing your stress. Quietly, whenever things are in chaos, you can at least take off the edge of stress with this technique. No one will suspect what’s up.

Deep breathe a few times

It is as simple as breathing, but you have got to do it right. In my workshops and when coaching individuals, I show them a shot glass and a normal sized coffee mug. I hold the shot glass up to the my chest, above my heart and say:

“Most people when they are under stress, either breath just to the top of their lungs or if things are really going to heck in a hand basket, they hold their breath. Great for underwater sponge or pearl divers but not good for the rest of us. You need more than a shot glass for of air to think well, to have choices of how you are going to react, and to stay out of trouble.”

I put away the shot glass and hold up the coffee mug and press into my stomach area at my navel.

“Pretend you have this coffee mug right here, under your rib cage, in your belly. Now breathe in and think of pulling your breath all the way down to the coffee mug without bothering to fill the rest of your lungs. Push out your belly to make more room as more air comes down. Don’t over do it, just breath but breath down to your “coffee mug.” ”

To bring down your stress, fill your belly coffee cup by breathing in for 5 or 6 seconds. Hold for a few seconds and exhale. Repeat. Do this about 4 or 5 times and you will have taken your edge off.

If you want to, go ahead and keep breathing this way for several more minutes. Since you are not over doing it, you will not hyperventilate. You will feel different as you bring more oxygen to the point in your lungs where it can be easily absorbed.

No one will be the wiser, but your body will thank you.

See our Relax Guides downloads to the right of this post for a copy of Deep Breathing instructions.

Get On The Fly

Get On The Fly

The biggest thing that stops people from trying relaxation techniques is: “Hey, I don’t have 30 minutes to meditate.”  So let’s break that down: the only way to relax is through meditation, most people assume. But that assumption is false.

On-the-fly relaxation techniques are numerous, and in most ways, more effective than one or two meditation sessions per day. These regular world techniques are totally portable, invisible to others, and simple to work in.

Deep Breathing – Four or five cycles of breathing in, down to the belly and out really takes the edge off.

Sensory Mindfulness – Tune gently away from your thoughts and feelings and listen to the sounds around you for a few seconds. Next touch any surface in front of you (e.g. a keyboard, your sleeve, a coffee mug, a pen) and just note the feeling on your finger tips. Repeat for 30 seconds or up to a few minutes. Hey, don’t tell anyone, but you have just preformed a meditation practice.

Calming Imagery – Bring to your mind’s eye your last vacation (if it was a good time), or a favorite pet, or anything else that strikes you as calming (you also can do this with your eyes open). Hold onto the image or make it more vivid for a minute or two. Feel the greater calm.

No cross-legged position required for any of these. No seclusion necessary. Invisible to everyone else but you know what really is going on. You are de-stressing, when you need it, within your regular life, all on the fly.