I am the first person to admit I have a hard time relaxing. Some days, I feel like a toddler at a piñata party. The distractions of life rain down with every whack of some big universal stick, and I find myself chasing madly about to pick up the pieces.
We have to question what in the heck goes on in our minds when the busy-ness of life shoves out our human need and desire to relax and rest?
Here’s the answer. We are so spun up in jam-packed schedules and never-ending tasks that we’ve triggered our sympathetic nervous system. This is where our fight-or-flight responses live. And we have literally lived in this state for so long that the this system is stuck in the ‘on’ position.
Relaxation Techniques & Your Health
Copious research has explored the effectiveness of relaxation techniques. And the recommendations consistently point to the immense physical and mental health benefits of making relaxation a part of your day.
According to the National Institutes for Health, relaxation comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, from progressive relaxation to guided imagery and biofeedback to deep breathing exercises. Meditation can also promote relaxation, as well as formal stress-management programs that include relaxation training.
Our goal is to coax our bodies to flip on the natural relaxation response mechanism – the parasympathetic nervous system. When we do this, we slow our breathing, lower blood pressure and increase overall feelings of calm and well-being. Research has also shown that relaxation techniques can play a role in managing a plethora of health conditions, from anxiety and asthma to fibromyalgia, insomnia and heart disease.
Practically speaking, we may find it challenging to ink in relaxation time into our calendars each day, so look to these easy and simple techniques to get the ball rolling:
With the average American spending 3+ hours a day on social media, it’s no wonder we feel more stress. Taking a break from technology can do wonders for our mental and physical state. Simply scheduling the time we allow ourselves to check digital channels can help. Try stowing the cell phone with the ringer off at certain times of the day.
The American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America survey reveals 86% of adults in the U.S. say they constantly or often check emails, texts and social media accounts.
“The emergence of mobile devices and social networks over the last decade has certainly changed the way Americans live and communicate on a daily basis,” said Lynn Bufka, PhD, APA’s associate executive director for practice research and policy.
“Today, almost all American adults own at least one electronic device, with many being constantly connected to them. What these individuals don’t consider is that while technology helps us in many ways, being constantly connected can have a negative impact on both their physical and mental health.”
The Exercise Edge
As little as 30 minutes a day of brisk walking will stimulate the production of endorphins – the chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers – and reduce stress.
Amp up the intensity and get the heart pumping for even greater benefits. Regular aerobic exercise has the capacity to provide an exhilarating feeling, dissipate stress and stimulate calming feelings. Experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week for healthy adults and strength training two or more times a week to optimize physical and emotional health.
Calm the Commute
Commuting and navigating rush-hour traffic can elicit feelings of stress, frustration and even anger as drivers jockey for position along the freeways. Some effective ways to quickly ramp down those emotions while driving mean planning ahead.
Leave your house 15 minutes earlier than usual. You’ll immediately feel unrushed by doing this. Merge slowly and purposefully into traffic. Pick one lane and stay there. Driving in the slow lane can be very relaxing when you aren’t in a hurry. Listen to relaxing music or an audiobook while driving.
Silence the cell phone and put it in your bag or the glove box so you are not tempted to pick it up while driving. Use a few drops of calming essential oils (lavender, rose, ylang ylang, citrus or chamomile) on a cotton ball and tuck it under your floor mat for a soothing aroma while driving.
The American Institute for Stress describes breathing as a “super stress buster” that promotes relaxation and reduces stress. This literally takes 2 minutes. If possible, set aside one or two times each day to practice breathing.
Place one hand on your abdomen, close your eyes gently and breathe in through your belly. Pause for a count of 3. Breathe out and pause while you count to 3. Repeat as you focus on physically relaxing the muscles from your head to your toes. Focus on releasing all tension from your body.
Prepare to Practice
It took me several months and a formal course in meditation to learn to control my impulses to always be doing something that – in my mind – I deemed productive.
I now set aside 20 minutes at the start of every day to mindful relaxation. It may be meditation or staring at a wall while sipping that first cup of coffee. Either way, the room is quiet, the phone is not in sight, and I focus on greeting the day with calm clarity.
Relaxation techniques take practice. Remain open-minded and positive, knowing that taking as little as 2 minutes can improve your health and well-being. When you’re just beginning, it may seem like just one more item on the to-do list. But I promise, this one is well worth prioritizing.