Relaxation Therapy for Seniors

Advice for families and caregivers

Relaxation techniques, regularly practiced, have been shown to strengthen the body's immune system, help control blood pressure, improve the body's ability to manage glucose, reduce stress, and diminish pain.

General information

Many relaxation techniques are available, and if your parent is willing to try relaxation therapy, he or she can select the one that feels most compatible. Some of the various techniques include:

  • Tensing each muscle in the body, one by one, then relaxing them, one by one (or just focusing on and then relaxing each muscle, in sequence, without first tensing it)
  • This technique takes the mind off of anxiety-provoking thoughts and images and enables a person to feel somewhat in control of his or her body.

  • Slow, rhythmic breathing combined with images of beautiful, peaceful places
  • This refocusing, away from pain and anxiety and onto positive and peaceful images, helps diminish the pain and reduces anxiety.

  • Meditation, focusing on a word, image or concept
  • This technique takes the mind off of pain or anxiety and focuses on something calming, such as ocean sounds, the thought that "I will get better," or an image of a child smiling.

  • Prayer
  • This appeal to a higher power relaxes and calms some people.

  • Biofeedback plus relaxation
  • Biofeedback uses electrical equipment to help a person learn how to control the body's heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. It is normally used in conjunction with other relaxation techniques and helps reduce pain and anxiety.

  • Hypnosis
  • In hypnosis, the goal is to achieve a state of relaxed concentration, during which the mind is more receptive to suggestions that block the awareness of pain, or to change the sensation of pain to something that is positive. The hypnotist should be a trained psychologist or psychiatrist.

  • Massage
  • In massage, a massage therapist kneads the body into a state of relaxation, which can reduce pain and anxiety, stress and exhaustion. Different people find various massage techniques helpful. Your parent can try different techniques to see which are most effective.

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Relaxation and pain

Q: In addition to pain medication, what else can my parent do to cope?

A: Besides getting adequate pain medication, and taking it as prescribed, many patients find that alternative treatments help. Here are some options:

  • Relaxation techniques
  • People in pain become more tense, which makes muscles tighter, increases the pain, and leads to a vicious pain cycle. Relaxation techniques can counteract that pain syndrome and also lower blood pressure and heart rate, producing a sense of greater well-being. These techniques reduce stress and get people's minds off their pain and onto more soothing or just different images. There are many different relaxation techniques (see the top of this page) and a wide range of relaxation tapes available on line or wherever tapes are sold.

  • Acupuncture
  • This approach uses needles to get energy flowing correctly through the body, and this energy flow is believed to enable the body to heal itself and reduce pain. While some seniors are distressed at the thought of needles and alternative treatments, others find them helpful. Acupuncture is usually given in a soothing environment, and the acupuncturists often are very supportive.


Q: My parent doesn't want to try relaxation techniques. How can I convince her?

A: All you can do is assemble information about the various options for your parent. Not everyone is comfortable with relaxation techniques, and your parent has to do what feels right to him or her. For more information and suggestions on how to try the different relaxation techniques, go to the National Cancer Institute website at

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Relaxation and chemotherapy

Q: How can I help my parent with her anxiety while undergoing chemotherapy?
You can talk with your parent about the various relaxation techniques (see the top of this page) and encourage her to try one on a regular basis. Many cancer patients have found these techniques enormously helpful in reducing stress and offering some sense of control over their body as they achieve a relaxation response. Also, some cancer patients find that relaxation techniques help them manage their nausea and improve their ability to sleep.

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Relaxation and breathing problems

Q: How can I help my parent with anxiety about breathing problems?

A: Here are some suggestions:

  • Anti-anxiety medication, which must be prescribed by a physician, can very helpful in reducing your parent's anxiety level and can greatly enhance his or her sense of well-being.
  • In addition, your parent might consider trying one of the many relaxation techniques available (see the top of this page). Anxiety causes tightening of muscles, while relaxation can relax the muscles, which in some cases can widen respiratory passages, decrease chest pain, and counter anxiety while strengthening the immune system.
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Relaxation and arthritis

Q: What can I do to help my parent cope with pain from arthritis?

A: People who are in pain experience both physical and emotional stress, and stress causes muscles to tighten, which then increases pain. So, in addition to taking whatever pain medication is recommended by a physician, activities that relax can also help relieve pain.

Relaxation techniques are most helpful if used before the pain becomes too severe. A wide variety of activities can produce relaxation (see the top of this page), and your parent should explore them and find the one that fits his or her personality best.

Some relaxation options include visualization; prayer; meditation; focusing on relaxing each part of the body in sequence, often accompanied by a tape; and focusing on tightening and then relaxing each part of the body in sequence.

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Relaxation and heart disease

Q: My parent fears he will have another heart attack. How can I help?

A: Anxiety is a normal response to a heart attack.

  • Encourage your parent to exercise -- only as much as his doctor recommended -- as a means of feeling less anxious.
  • Also, many heart patients benefit from the regular practice of relaxation techniques (see the top of this page), which have been found to decrease anxiety, boost the immune system and also promote heart health.
  • Others find anti-anxiety medication helpful, either alone or in conjunction with relaxation techniques.
  • If your parent's anxiety persists and doesn't diminish, you should seek professional help.


    Q: My parent has heart disease, is anxious, and fears chest pain. How can I help?

    A: It isn't always easy to tell the difference between a heart attack and angina, and it takes practice.

    • Talk with your doctor about how to differentiate the symptoms of each based on the specific angina symptoms your parent is having, and about what to do if they occur.
    • Also, relaxation techniques (see the top of this page) might help reduce the chest pain. Since pain leads to anxiety, which will cause muscles to tighten and produce more pain, relaxing those muscles could help diminish the pain.
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Relaxation and diabetes

Q: Would relaxation techniques help my parent cope with diabetes?

A: Relaxation techniques (see the top of this page), practiced regularly, have been found to help people with type 2 diabetes -- for whom stress blocks the body from releasing insulin -- to better manage their bodies' ability to regulate glucose and thereby avoid complications.

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Relaxation and radiation therapy

Q: Would alternative treatments help with nausea from radiation therapy?
Some people find alternative treatments very helpful. You can:

  • Encourage your parent to relax before treatment. Listening to calming music, meditating, reading, or doing something he or she enjoys can all help decrease the nausea. Many find that the regular practice of relaxation techniques (see the top of this page) reduces stress and fatigue, and improves sleep.
  • Let your parent know that some people find acupuncture to be helpful as a way to counteract nausea.

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Relaxation and depression

Q: Besides helping my depressed parent find a therapist, how can I help?

A: Here are some things you can try that may help, depending on your parent's level of depression:

  • Devise ways to get your parent out. Remind your parent of things he or she used to like doing, and plan to do one of them together. This could mean going to a sports event, having dinner together, going fishing, walking, to a movie, etc.
  • Plan activities that get your parent interacting with others -- whether family or friends.
  • Encourage your parent to take a class or join a gym, as either would get him or her out of the house and to a place where he or she could see the same people regularly and hopefully connect with some.
  • See if you can encourage your parent to exercise. Exercise helps mood, as the endorphins released promote a sense of well-being -- so a daily exercise regimen could be very beneficial.
  • Help your parent to find a good doctor for any medical problems and accompany him or her to appointments if possible. At the appointments you can provide support, raise medical concerns, and take notes on what the doctor says. If you then print out and laminate the notes, making several copies that can be left around your parent's house, this will help remind your parent to follow the doctor's instructions.
  • Make sure that treatment for both the depression and the medical problem is working. Does your parent feel comfortable with the therapist? With his or her physician? Are there side effects from the medication? Is your parent still taking the medication? Closely observe your parent and make sure the depression seems to be decreasing, not increasing.
  • Many depressed people are also anxious, and for them, adopting the regular practice of a relaxation technique (see the top of this page) could be helpful. In addition, treating the anxiety medically could help.
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Relaxation and stroke

Q: My parent has been depressed since having a stroke. What can I do?

A: Frustration is to be expected. Empathize with the frustration, but calmly refocus on small goals ahead.

Depression is common in stroke patients. It's important to discuss the depression with his or her doctor and the rehabilitation staff and to treat it so that it won't impede the rehabilitation.

Some stroke patients have found that the regular practice of relaxation techniques (see the top of this page) has helped them manage their frustration and anxiety while going through rehabilitation.

And some, when they are recovered enough to participate, find attending support groups to be helpful. For more information on support groups for stroke patients, go to or

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Relaxation and Parkinson's disease

Q: How can I help my parent with the anxiety she has experienced since being diagnosed with Parkinson's?

A: If your parent starts practicing relaxation techniques (see the top of this page) on a regular basis, this should help with her anxiety and could also boost her immune system, possibly delaying some disease progression. Your parent could also ask the doctor for anxiety medication to help reduce stress.

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Relaxation and mobility problems

Q: How can I help my parent cope with frustration over mobility problems?
Your parent might benefit from a support group. Sharing frustrations and coping strategies with others in his or her situation could help. Support groups for people with handicaps can be found at or Support Groups/Disability.

Also, some seniors have benefited from the regular practice of relaxation techniques (see the top of this page), which have been found to decrease anxiety and boost the immune system. Talk with your parent about the different relaxation techniques available, and see if one appeals to him or her. Another option is to ask your parent's doctor for anxiety medication.

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Relaxation and surgery

Q: My parent has had sleep problems since having surgery. How can I help?

A: The insomnia is most likely a temporary post-surgical response to the trauma, fear and anxiety associated with surgery. It is very common but creates stress for the patient and his or her family.

  • Sleep medication may help. Discuss this issue with your parent's doctor.
  • Some patients find that the regular practice of relaxation techniques (see the top of this page) helps them sleep better.


Q: Would relaxation techniques help my parent cope with surgery?

A: Relaxation techniques (see the top of this page) used before surgery have been shown to lower the degree of pain experienced by patients afterwards.

These techniques also help control post-surgical anxiety and enable some patients to sleep better.

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Relaxation and Alzheimer's disease

Q: Would relaxation techniques help my parent cope with having Alzheimer's?

A: It can be helpful for people in the early to mid stages of the disease to begin the regular practice of relaxation techniques (see the top of this page). Regular practice can help reduce anxiety and delay some memory loss.

In addition, many doctors recommend taking anti-anxiety medication, which can help patients cope.

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Relaxation and vision loss

Q: My parent is anxious and afraid as a result of vision loss. How can I help?
You can encourage your parent to try some relaxation techniques (see the top of this page), which should reduce his or her anxiety level and offer some sense of control. There are many different techniques. See if your parent finds one he or she is comfortable with and is willing to try.

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Relaxation and kidney disease

Q: Would relaxation help my parent cope with kidney disease?

A: Relaxation exercises could help your parent cope with both the pain and the anxiety that can accompany kidney disease. Many patients have found them enormously helpful in reducing stress and offering some sense of control over one's body. Reducing stress relaxes muscles, which can decrease pain..

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Relaxation and end-stage disease

Q: My parent has reached the end stage and is anxious about dying. Would relaxation techniques help?
They might. It is worth a try.

Discuss the different techniques (see the top of this page) with your parent and see which one, if any, he or she feels most comfortable with. Then encourage your parent to practice the most appealing one for a few days to see if it provides any relief. If not, your parent could try another technique.

Your parent could also speak to a doctor about anti-anxiety meditation and/or try counseling -- either with a therapist, clergy person or hospice worker -- to put his or her life in perspective and come to terms with it.

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