Being able to unwind from the tangle of stress and enter a state of deep relaxation is one of the most important skills you can learn. It is a skill that will benefit both your physical and mental health as well as making you happier and giving you a sense of having more control. Not only is it possible for everyone to relax, it is crucial for well-being. To be relaxed is to be free from physical and mental tension. It is one of our primary needs. And relaxation will help you be more productive, not less. Unfortunately, it is a need that is frequently ignored. Perhaps not so much ignored as given a low priority. Every thing else you have to do comes first and you never quite get around to relaxing.
But why do you need to relax? The simplest reason to relax is that it feels good. Escaping from muscle tension, anxiety, worry, and everything else that not being relaxed entails is a wonderful experience. Even though it is a temporary state, relaxation benefits us in many ways. Physically, it revitalizes us. By allowing muscles to release tension and cease exertion, relaxation recharges our muscles with energy. The easing of muscle tension can bring significant pain relief. It is also helpful in the body’s healing process to relax. The body can more easily use energy for healing or fighting illness when it relaxes completely. Research on the immune system shows that stress depletes our immune function and relaxation restores it.
Relaxation has numerous mental benefits also. A calm mind can concentrate better. This has the feeling of being more clear headed. With the increased attentional capacity that relaxation brings we often feel more able to handle whatever problems we have to face. We feel we have gained more control over our lives. In these ways, the ability to relax is a valuable coping skill for most of life’s problems.
Because of the broad range of these benefits, training in relaxation is sometimes called the “aspirin” of Mind-Body medicine. Relaxation training is found in treating stress, anxiety, and mood disorders, as well as a wide variety of physical problems such as chronic pain and chronic illness. It is important to remember that the effects of relaxation are equally physical and mental.
Attention: The Key to Relaxation
At the heart of learning how to relax is learning how to focus your attention. Did you know that your attention is your most valuable resource? Whatever you give your attention to becomes your experience. At the same time our attentional capacity is quite limited. We can’t focus fully on much more than one thing at a time. This means that our experience of any given moment is limited by the constraints of our attention.
You can think of attention as a spotlight, a spotlight of awareness that you direct, and whatever falls into this spotlight becomes your experience. Most of the time we don’t put much conscious effort into directing our attention. We let it be pulled and pushed by habit or the power of the objects we focus on. It takes considerable effort to take control of this spotlight, but as we develop this control, we actually take control of our experience. We talk about “paying” attention, but, instead, think more in terms of “investing” your attention because of the effort it requires. It is a more accurate description.
If you want to change your experience, invest your attention in something else. When asked how they relax, most people offer reading, watching TV, playing sports, exercising, or something else that gets their focus off the usual worry-go-round spinning through their minds. These activities do remove stressful thoughts from awareness and some relaxation is achieved. However, most of these activities have goals of their own, goals other than deep relaxation. To attain deeper levels of relaxation it is necessary to invest your attention in things that will elicit the self-regulating relaxation response.
Self-Regulation: The body coming into balance
Let me take a moment to explain self-regulation. Attention is a means of connecting to any aspect of your self or your life. This could be your physical self, your thoughts or emotions, your relationships or your surroundings. When you attend to any of these, you become more aware of what is happening with them, and more connected to them. This connection is based on feedback between you and whatever you are attending to. When you attend to something you receive more information about it and can respond to it better.
An example of feedback is a simple household thermostat. A thermostat is the thermometer on the wall that relays the temperature of the room to the switch for the furnace. When the temperature is too low, the thermostat will turn the furnace on for more heat. Enough heat will trigger the thermostat to then turn the furnace off. This is a working feedback loop and the result is system that is regulates itself. When self-regulation is occurring, the system is in a state of order and it functions with relative ease.
When information becomes blocked, however, through lack of attention, or dis-attention, the system falls into dis-regulation. If this continues for long, the system will become disordered. Using the thermostat example once again, if the thermostat is not connected properly, the furnace could over heat or not supply enough heat. In this disordered situation, the temperature is out of control. Should this continue, the system will start to break down, such as the pipes freezing or the furnace burning out, and we would no longer have a state of ease but dis-ease.
Some say a state of ease is the opposite of disease. This is an intriguing idea. In the dictionary “ease” is defined as the state of being free from effort, free from worry, free from pain, free from concern, free from problem, free from any kind of difficulty. It sounds like paradise. I think it would be accurate to assume that the state of ease is at the opposite end of the spectrum from disease.
The relaxation response is the body self-regulating. When life makes demands on us, our body and mind are made ready for action. The stress response is the system being activated. Just as in the thermostat and the furnace example, if we don’t allow ourselves to shut down our stress response, our own systems can fall into disorder and even disease. Attention is required to connect us to the system and achieve the appropriate feedback. There are many techniques to achieve deep relaxation. Each requires investing your attention but each uses a slightly different focus.
Techniques for relaxation
Many of the clinically proven relaxation techniques focus on some aspect of your physical self. One of the simplest is diaphragmatic breathing which spotlights learning to relax the abdominal muscles and breathe with the breathing muscle, the diaphragm, instead of breathing with the chest. This has been described by some experts as the single most important relaxation technique to master. It has a powerful relaxing effect and can readily be made into a healthy habit.
Progressive muscle relaxation centers on attending to muscles. Gently shrugging groups of muscles helps to sensitize you to the presence of tension so that it is easier to release muscle tightness. You can’t let go of anything unless you know you are holding it, and we often have had tight muscles so long that we no longer feel how tight they are. We get so used to chronic stress that and we don’t even feel it any more. This technique increases awareness of tight muscles and trains you to release that tension.
Autogenic training repeats a series of phrases that help you concentrate on and, in fact, create the sensations of warmth, heaviness, and relaxation in different parts of your body. Autogenic simply means self generated and it is hoped that eventually you will produce a deep state of relaxation by repeating these phrases to yourself.
Some techniques use mental images of peaceful places to evoke relaxation rather than focusing on your own body. Certain situations are almost universally relaxing and, by conjuring up these tranquil scenes in your mind, your body releases its stress reaction and responds accordingly, with a state of calm as if you were actually in that serene place. Being guided through mental images is often a quick way to achieve deep relaxation, like having a short vacation in your mind.
Occasionally, it may be suggested that you try biofeedback as you work with a relaxation technique. Because relaxation is an unfamiliar state for many people, it may, at times, be difficult to tell how well you are doing. The tension or warmth in your muscles or some other equally subtle sensation may be too faint to capture your attention. Biofeedback uses machines that amplify those quiet signals so that you can attend to them clearly. As you become more relaxed, the machine lets you know the progress you are making.
Relaxation is also a main effect of meditation, but meditation does much more. Remember that your attention is your greatest resource because it creates your experience, and it is in short supply. Therefore the ability to control the focus of your attention is the ultimate control. Control your attention and you control your experience. Unfortunately, it takes some effort to develop this control. We each have the ability to develop this control but it is not automatic. Meditation is an exercise for strengthening your ability to control your attention. Through meditation you develop the ability to attend to what you choose. Not only does regular meditation build this strength, it creates a state of deep relaxation in the process.
With all of these relaxation techniques, your effort is put into investing your attention in something, not into trying to relax. Relaxation is the by product of your efforts to connect with the focus of each exercise. It is important to remember that relaxation itself is the absence of effort, you don’t need to try to do it.
Obstacles to Relaxing
While it is true that some people have more difficulty learning to relax than others, everyone has the potential to develop this skill. And, as mentioned earlier, freedom from stress and tension is one of our most fundamental needs. Understanding the common problems in achieving relaxation will help you counter them in your own efforts and ensure your success.
The goal is to make a habit of relaxation. This means establishing a mastery of a number of relaxation skills and utilizing them as a natural part of your routine. The largest barriers to you achieving this are some of the competing habits that you already have. To help your identify them in your life, I’ve put these obstacles into four categories: a hyperactive environment, a hyperactive schedule, a hyperactive body, and a hyperactive mind.
The Hyperactive Environment
Because our immediate surroundings are often far from peaceful, creating a quiet spot for your relaxation practice will accelerate your progress considerably. Some things to consider: turn the ringer off your phone and put the answering machine on, pick a spot away from the busyness of others, if you are listening to an audio program, headphones will help cut out distractions.
The Hyperactive Schedule
With jam packed schedules, it is not possible to simple find time to practice relaxing. Time cannot be found, it must be scheduled. Your practice must take a high enough priority merit a regular place in your schedule. You may need to experiment with different times of day to find which works best for you. As you try different times, you may notice that relaxing at the beginning of the day has a very different effect than relaxing at the end of the day. Relaxing connects you with the state of your body, so if your are tired and running on stress energy, relaxation will allow you to feel how tired you really are. At another time, relaxation can leave you feeling alert and energized.
The Hyperactive Body
Another obstacle arises from our having become accustomed to the physical arousal produced by our stress. Our bodies are used to being revved up. You may become aware of this stress energy whenever you attempt to sit still for long. For some the body can feel restless and fidgety; there is actually a discomfort with sitting still. You may even feel an urge to spring into action without knowing exactly what you want to do. If this occurs for you don’t despair, there is still hope. Before sitting down to relax, try jumping around a little, the way a boxer does before a match. Shake your arms and legs or do a few stretching exercises to calm your body. Keep your initial relaxation sessions short and gradually increase their duration.
The Hyperactive Mind
While calming the mind is one of the natural goals of relaxation, some people feel their mind is too active to be calmed. The chaotic flow of thoughts is a habit of mind stemming from untrained attention. By following the exercises in this program, you will gradually strengthen your control over your attention and over the flow of thought through the mind. the busier the mind, the more there is to be gained.
Actually, these problems are all symptomatic of our hyperactive society, which constantly treats time as a commodity and instills guilt over time “wasted” in some non-productive activity. Our society is also extremely materialistic, which means it values external things over internal states. Relaxation goes against the grain of these core values and it is helpful simply recognizing this as you set about learning. One young male patient of mine was worried that his friends might see a relaxation tape I gave him in his collection. A relaxation tape sent the wrong message to his peers. Often the guilt that many woman experience when they take time for themselves is even more of an obstacle because they carry it with them constantly.
Taking time to practice and develop the skills of relaxation is a gift to yourself. Not only is it a productive activity in that it increases your life coping skills, it helps you to be more productive in your other activities. Regular relaxation enables you to handle more, to not be overwhelmed by stress. An analogy I use is that of a leaky boat. Imagine that you are the boat and the water leaking in is your stress – all the demands of your life.
As the boat takes on more and more water it becomes sluggish and difficult to handle. You are not handling the demands of your life. Eventually the boat will sink. Relaxation is akin to bailing out the boat. It lowers the immediate stress level to improve your functioning. Bailing doesn’t stop the flow of water so it must be done regularly to keep the boat afloat and manageable. So it is with relaxation. It is a valuable skill, however, for it to increase your well being on a long term scale you need to incorporate it into your life as a regular routine.