“Relax. Just do it.” It’s easier said than done for the majority of the world population that is living in a globalized, stress-based society. Stress is one of the biggest modern epidemics and its damaging effects on people’s health and immune system are widespread all around the planet. With the immensely increasing number of burn out cases, stress-related physical complaints and mental disorders, there’s an inevitable need to “just” relax.
What Relaxation Is
In order to become relaxed, we first need to know what exactly it is. One of the most common misunderstandings is that relaxation means doing “nothing.” When we are stressed out, we often get advice suggesting that we stop all activities, sleep more and lay on the couch to give the body and mind some rest. However, passive relaxing doesn’t stimulate the body’s natural relaxation response, which needs to be activated in order to effectively reduce everyday stress in our system. Just because your body’s still doesn’t mean your mind and soul are; actually, near-total stasis is likely to lead to more anxiety.
The Relaxation Response
When we are faced with a stressful situation, our nervous system goes into the fight-or-flight response, preparing the body to either attack or run from any source of perceived danger. In cases of trauma, these responses are often not possible and then we come into the freeze response, when we become paralyzed, not by fear but its buddy stress specifically. Our system comes into a state of hyper-alertness: increased heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing and amount of blood being pumped into the muscles. This can be lifesaving in an emergency situation. However, when we are under constant stress in daily life, this state becomes chronic and overwhelms our nervous system. This has a deep impact on our intestinal activities and immune system, while raising cholesterol levels.
Fortunately, we also possess the polar opposite of the stress response: the relaxation response. When it’s activated, we find ourselves in a state of deep relaxation on a physical and mental level, bringing our body and mind back into balance. Our heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and rate of breathing decrease, whereas the blood flow to the brain increases, stimulating energy, focus and problem solving abilities. It helps to reduce illnesses, relieves aches and pain and gives an overall feeling of calmness and control.
The activation of the relaxation response can be learned and strengthened with regular practice through a number of techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, rhythmic exercise, progressive muscle relaxation and yoga. By learning how to cope with stress through the use of these consistent tools, the negative effects of the stress response is countered, a greater state of alertness is developed and long term health is promoted. Relaxation techniques are focused on slowing down the body and quieting the mind and include refocusing attention, increasing body awareness and exercises to connect body and mind.
How to Relax
As with many matters, mindfulness is key.
Schedule relaxation techniques into your daily life, creating a practice. Find a way that works for you, based on your needs, your lifestyle and the way you tend to react to stress. If you have the tendency to go into the fight response as a reaction to stress—that is if you become angry, agitated or overactive—then you’ll respond best to relaxation techniques that quiet and calm you down, such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing.
If you go into the flight response under stress—becoming depressed, withdrawn, or dissociated—it’s better to focus on relaxation techniques that stimulate your nervous system, such as rhythmic exercise, massage, mindfulness or dynamic forms of yoga.
If you’ve experienced some type of trauma and tend to freeze when stressed, you better rouse your nervous system to a fight or flight response and from there choose the suited relaxation techniques. To do this, choose physical activity that engages both your arms and legs, such as running, dancing, swimming, and tai chi and perform it mindfully, focusing on the sensation in your limbs as you move.
How to Make Relaxation a Natural Habit
Do it every day for thirty days and relaxation will become a natural habit in your daily life, like flossing but a lot more fun. Schedule time for your practice and plan other things around it. Consider this as one of your primal needs, like eating, drinking and sleeping.
Make sure you’re awake and alert as the techniques might otherwsie cause you to fall asleep. It’s best to do it first thing in the morning, when the mind is rested and clear.
Let go of self-judgement. Accept wherever you are. Learning something new always requires some integration time, especially when working on the level of the nervous system. Resistance and frustration are part of the learning process as well. Don’t give up if you don’t see immediate results. It will come. Keep on practicing with compassion.
Be aware of what you’re doing. Whether it’s running, yoga, meditation or any other exercise, practice with awareness. Focus your attention into your body and be mindful of what’s going on inside. Observe physical sensations, emotions, places of tightness and stress, and synchronize your breath with the movements to bring you in a deeper meditative state.
Take your practice with you throughout the day. Observe how you’re breathing whenever possible. Focus on the exhalation in order to calm down the nervous system. Deep sighs during the day will also help you release accumulated stress in the system. Practice mindfulness in every activity that you’re doing whether it’s driving your car, eating, waiting in line, or having a conversation with somebody.
Last but not least, incorporate the wisdom of the following, ancient Chinese proverb into your whole system.
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.