How to slow down the body and quiet the mind
Relax. Just do it. Easier said than done for the majority of the world population that is living in a 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 world. 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 is relaxation?
In order to become relaxed, we first need to know what it is exactly. One of the most common misunderstandings is that relaxation means ‘doing nothing’. When we are stressed out, we often get advices like 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. This relaxation response needs to be activated in order to effectively reduce everyday stress in our system.
What is the relaxation response?
When we are faced with a stressful situation, our nervous system goes into a fight or flight response, preparing the body to either fight or run for the approaching danger. In cases of trauma, these responses are often not possible and then we come into the ‘freeze’ response, where we get stuck under stress. Either way, our system comes in a state of hyper alertness, including a highly 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 over activates our nervous system, raises cholesterol levels and has a deep impact on our intestinal activities and immune system.
Fortunately, we also possess the polar opposite of the stress response, the relaxation response. When this response is being 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 decreases, 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 being in control.
Moreover, 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 being countered, a greater state of alertness is being 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?
Just do it. With awareness. Fit in a practice of relaxation techniques in your daily life. 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, that is a tendency to become 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’ under stress, 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?
Now it all comes down to just doing it. Every day. Make relaxation a natural habit in your daily life.
Schedule time for your practices and plan other things around it. Consider this as one of your primal needs, just like eating, drinking and sleeping.
Make sure you’re awake and alert, although the techniques might cause you to fall asleep. It’s better to do it first thing in the morning, when the mind is clear and still.
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 when you won’t find 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 the breath with the movements to bring you in a deeper meditative state.
Take your practice with you throughout the day. Check in to your breath as often as possible and observe how you’re breathing. Focus on the exhalation in order to calm down the nervous system. Deep sighs during the day will also help you to 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.
And last but not least, incorporate the wisdom of this ancient Chinese proverb in your whole system.
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.