We all know that the best antidote to stress is relaxation. But what do you think of when you hear that word relaxation? A long soak in a hot tub, a massage, a vacation to the beach…
Those are excellent ways to relax but they require some time and effort. So if you’re like me, you may very well put off doing those things. “I’ll schedule a vacation/book a massage, etc. when I get past this deadline,” I tend to say to myself.
There are however, many simple ways to relax throughout every day. AND it is important to relax throughout the day every day. Those big relaxers are great, but they don’t last. I get a massage and the tension is back in my shoulders by the next day–sometimes sooner.
Why is it important to relax throughout the day? Remember that part of the nervous system that controls arousal vs. relaxation that we talked about awhile back? Quick refresher: the autonomic nervous system controls our body’s response to challenges and threats in our environment. When something is threatening/challenging us, the sympathetic branch of the ANS arouses our body to meet that challenge. Our heart rate, blood pressure, etc. go up, muscles tense, respiration increases, etc. When the challenge is over, the parasympathetic branch calms us down again so everything can go back to normal.
These two branches counterbalance each other, like the old-fashioned teeter-toters on children’s playgrounds when I was a kid. When one kid pushed off and went up, the kid on the other side went down.
So every time we activate the parasympathetic branch (relaxation) we are deactivating the sympathetic branch (arousal). And then it take a little while for the body to get all stressed out and tense again.
In terms of our minds, when we take relaxation breaks throughout the day, we recharge our coping batteries so that we go back to the tasks at hand with a clearer focus. Thus the time spent on these little relaxation breaks will enhance our productivity, making them well worth it.
So here are some quick and simple ways to relax periodically throughout the day. All of these can be done in 5-10 minutes, some of them even less than that. Btw, with all of these (except #4) it’s a good idea to be seated or lying down with every part of your body comfortably supported.
1. Progressive relaxation: Closing your eyes, you take a deep breath, then focus on each muscle group, telling your brain to send the signal for those muscles to relax completely. You can start either with your scalp or your feet. I’m a scalp person myself. I imagine the tension just flowing down and out of my body.
Try it! Close your eyes, deep breath, focus on your scalp and let it relax, then your face muscles (sometimes the jaw needs separate attention), then your neck, shoulders, etc.
2. Guided imagery: No need to book a flight and pack your bags. Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine your favorite relaxing vacation spot. Build the imagery by engaging all the senses. Lay on the beach and feel the warmth of the sun and the gentle breeze on your skin, hear the seagulls and the lapping waves, smell the salt in the air, etc.
3. Self-hypnosis: Can’t think of a relaxing place to go, or not the best at imagining things. Then try a little self-hypnosis. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize a set of steps in your mind’s eye (or a hill gently sloping downward in front of you). Imagine yourself slowly going down those steps/that hill and tell yourself (repeat several times) that with each step you will become more and more relaxed. Once at the bottom, you can tell yourself that you will relax completely for ____ minutes and then you will ‘wake up’ refreshed and energized (again repeat several times).
4. I’ve saved the easiest and fastest for last. Have you noticed a trend above? Each time you start with a deep breath. That’s because deep breathing automatically engages the parasympathetic (relaxation) branch of the ANS and gets the ball rolling. So if you don’t have time to stop even for 5 minutes, you can just do the deep breathing. Three slow, deep breaths in a row can do wonders!
I also saved this one for last because I have a fun story to share. A friend of mine was once going through a very busy time. I kept reminding her to take time to relax and take care of herself, and she kept saying she couldn’t do that. She would relax once XYZ was off her plate. I suggested all of the above and her response was that she didn’t even have 5 minutes a day to spare, and she knew she would never remember to take the deep breaths.
I suggested that I hypnotize her and give her post-hypnotic suggestions that whenever she started to get tense she would automatically take a deep breath. She gave me a skeptical look but she did sit still long enough for me to do this.
The next time I saw her was about two weeks later. I asked her how the deep breathing was going.
“It´s wonderful!” she said. “I don´t have to think about it. I just automatically take a breath whenever I need to relax some. There was just one problem. Jim (her husband) kept looking at me funny. I finally asked him why and he said he was worried about me because I was so depressed.”
“‘I’m not depressed,’ I told him. ‘What gave you that idea?’”
“‘Well, you’re constantly walking around the house sighing,’ he said.” 🙂
What do you think? Which of these techniques appeals the most to you? Or do you have other ideas?
I suggest trying all of these and then focusing on the one(s) that work best for you. I mainly use #1 and #3 myself.
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