Does everyone tell you to “just relax”? Not as easy as it sounds, is it? It seems logical that relaxation is better than tension, but modern life is busy and full—who has time to relax? Why is it so important? Clearly, with the upswing in interest in practices like yoga, tai chi, chi gong, and meditation, many people are seeking something to help them de-stress.
Humans are basically health-seeking and self-repairing. The modern movement here in the west to seek out eastern practices is a good indication that our systems are telling us to slow down. That is an indicator that our western lifestyle is setting our lives askew, and we are driven to do something to fix it. However, adding more rushing onto your day by way of a yoga class misses the point unless you make some other changes as well.
What is Stress?
Stress is bad, right? Not always. Actually, stress is what motivates you to do stuff. If you are cold, the cold is a stressor that gets you moving to get a sweater. If it smells bad where your kids play, that stress motivates you to take them somewhere else and perhaps make a complaint. Stress comes in two sorts: The sort that motivates us to change something, and the sort that hurts too much and causes problems. In truth, most stress motivates us, but sometimes not until after the problems appear. Fighting with a partner is stressful, but how often do we continue to do the same thing and expect a different result rather than dramatically changing our response? A headache means something is wrong—do you take a pill or seek to find out what is wrong?
Stress thus causes you to do important things, but it can also overwhelm your system. When stress is overwhelming, we tend to get run down, unmotivated, or even sick. When you are out of balance, you will feel it, and the longer it takes you to respond, the worse you will feel. Your bodymind is figuratively yelling at you to fix something.
Your immune system will react to too much stress by working less well—that is why you get sick after a time of overwhelming stress. Your autonomic nervous system might react to too much stress with higher blood pressure. Your arteries might show the effects of too much stress by developing plaques. Your gut might act up, or you might get headaches. You might feel depressed or anxious. All of these symptoms indicate too much stress. Obviously you must check with an MD if you are mysteriously ill, but in addition to getting a physical, check in with yourself: What are you doing that is weakening your body’s defenses?
Ways to De-Stress
We cannot eliminate stress from our lives, and we really do not want to, since stress is what keeps us adapting and learning. What we can do is learn to manage our stress; changing distress, the painful kind, into eustress, the motivating kind. We can also avoid deliberately adding more stress.
In today’s world, one main way we stress ourselves out is by overcommitting. We are always running around. Whether it is your kids’ events or your home and work responsibilities plus that trip to the gym, you are running all day every day. All of it feels essential, but that means taking a close look at what can be eliminated. If you are exhausted or never have time for fun, or even exhausted from getting too little sleep in order to add in some fun, it is time to reevaluate your priorities. Regular meals and regular sleep patterns are essential for good health. Reducing your stress load is a positive goal to improve your health.
Relaxation and Health
You can also retrain yourself to be less tense overall. This means you are essentially changing the baseline of tension or distress at which you process the stressors of daily life.
Many eastern practices can teach you to do this. On your own, you can practice basic relaxation. First you have to make yourself a priority. That’s right, taking care of YOU comes before taking care of work, kids, partners, friends, and the house. Because if you fall apart, how are you going to do all of that other stuff?
Foregoing all the pressures, you grit your teeth and decide to “try” to relax. And you do not feel better. Your mind is still racing while you sit in the chair. You already know that it is a good idea, just not how to do it.
Three Easy Steps to a More Relaxed You
Start by sitting; just sitting. Commit to nothing but your own mind for ten minutes. Watch the thoughts crowd in—just watch them and make an effort to let them float in and out without grabbing onto any one in particular. You have watched your mind work for long enough to know that all of those thoughts have been there before and will be there again. It is okay to let them float away.
After a week of daily practice at just sitting, practice focusing on your breath. You already know now how to let the thoughts go by, so as they do, attend to the sensations and patterns of your breath. Again resist the urge to do anything about it, just observe your body’s process. Do this for ten minutes daily the second week.
What do you notice at the end of two weeks when you keep your commitment to yourself to sit and observe? Has anything changed? Now you are ready to extend the time and experiment with some imagery.
In the third week, spend the first minute or so as you have before, preparing your mind and observing your breath. When you find the point of mental quiet you have been practicing, imagine a natural spot that suits you. Using all of your senses, create a “meditation place” in nature that is safe, comfortable, pleasing to the senses, and isolated from other humans, even your very favorite ones. Remember, this small bit of time is your healing time. It belongs to you and no one else.
You Deserve It!
Once you have mastered this simple exercise and made the daily commitment for three weeks, you have created a habit. You can extend it as you please—doing the exercise more than once a day, or sometimes for longer periods. Keep your commitment to yourself on a daily basis. Observe the subtle changes that indicate you have done something wonderful for yourself. Relaxation is a simple key to better health and less distress. Slow down and respect the needs of your organism for calm, comfort, and quiet.
Carol B. Low. Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of the Center for Conscious Living, a holistic private practice outside of Chicago, IL. Dr. Low specializes in helping you to heal the interface between mind and body—solving plaguing problems caused by stress, trauma, and the pressures of daily life in the modern world.
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