We are all a little too busy, a lot overworked and constantly being pulled in a million and one directions. With so much constant stress, being able to relax is extremely important. Where there is a need, there is an opportunity for a company to make a buck (or a few million), and the business of decompression is a booming one. Before you run out and plunk down half a paycheck on a bunch of stuff to help shake off your work-related stress, let’s really look at what you need to relax.
How It Starts
We’ve been exploring the different causes and effects of stress lately and one thing is glaringly apparent: stress can be dangerous. Too much can be bad for your mind, your body, and even your hair and skin can suffer. Being able to disengage your brain from whatever may be weighing on it, even for a short while, is pretty essential to your health. So naturally, there have been numerous products created for the sheer purpose of making the act of relaxation more enjoyable.
Before we get too far into this, I have nothing against bubble baths, lavender scented candles, or a nice big glass of a full-bodied red after a long, stressful day, trust me. All of the things that you may associate with relaxation are lovely, and they are designed to be. Relaxation should be enjoyable as well as effective (we’ll get to that in a minute).
However, like most things, relaxation is a case of needs versus wants. You may want to sink into a sea of bubbles while unwinding to the sweet sounds of Adele and sipping something delightful, but you don’t need to in order to relax.
Therein lies the issue.
By tying your relaxation to material things, it makes it almost inevitable that you will begin to form a dependency on them. One day you’ll find yourself saying, “well, I’d love to unwind, but I don’t have time for a bath/book/movie/activity,” or “I’m out of scented oils/there’s no wine in the house, so I can’t relax!” These sorts of associations lead to a pattern of addiction, where the thing that once just made your relaxation a little more enjoyable, has become the main attraction.
The Hamster Wheel
In a 2010 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 76% of respondents stated that money was a significant source of stress in their lives. Work and family responsibilities also netted a large percentage of responses (70% and 58%, respectively), which means that time and money are likely main causes of stress for many. If you begin to form dependencies on material things to aide in your relaxation, they will actually end up doing more harm than good by contributing to the causes of your stress.
Things like taking a bubble bath, reading a book, watching a favorite television show or movie, or socializing with friends, are all popular relaxing activities that take both a significant amount of time and at least a small amount of money. If you don’t have the time or money available to you on a regular basis to participate in those activities, you can start to feel as though you can’t afford to relax, which adds another layer of stress. After all, what kind of life are you living if you don’t even have enough time or money to relax, am I right?
Participating in an enjoyable activity that happens to relax you is not the same thing as relaxing. Relaxation is, according to the Mayo Clinic, “a process that decreases the effect of stress on your mind and body.” Stress causes measurable changes in both your brain activity and your body and relaxation is the process that brings you back to a more natural state, “un-heightening” your senses and reactions. Relaxation is not a body lotion, warm latte or 90-minute yoga class, I don’t care what the commercial is telling you. Those things may help, but they are the frosting on your relaxation cupcake. It’s nice, but unnecessary.
Break the Cycle
So, how can you relax for free? There are lots of techniques and practices that you can employ to aide in your relaxation for constant bursts of short term relief that can help alleviate the symptoms of stress and help lead a healthier, happier life. However, it is important to keep in mind that these techniques will only help you deal with the effects of stress, not resolve the cause. I don’t care how often you employ these practices, they won’t make your boss nicer or your commute shorter or your relationships less toxic, but they will give your mind and body a chance to “come down” from their heightened state, at least for a little while.
In general, here are the things to aim for when practicing relaxation techniques:
- Lowering blood pressure/heart rate
- Slowing your breathing
- Increasing blood flow
- Reducing muscle tension/chronic pain
- Lowering fatigue
While there are many different ways to relax your body and mind, here are three highly effective techniques that can take as much or as little time as you have and require absolutely no equipment or experience:
Autogenic Relaxation: This technique includes things like meditation and visualization. Try picturing a peaceful setting, a calming word or phrase or even a single color (which is sometimes less distracting). Once that image is set, hold it in your mind and turn your attention to your breathing. One of the simplest and most effective ways of breathing is to inhale through your nose, allowing your diaphragm to expand (you’ll get a nice round belly from it). Breathe deeply and fully, until you can’t hold anymore. Hold this breath in for a moment and then release it out your mouth. Completely empty your lungs of air, drawing your belly button back towards your spine (like you’re trying to squeeze into a tight pair of jeans). Once your lungs are completely, completely empty, start again.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This is a great technique to practice as you are trying to fall asleep. Lie on your back with your legs and arms straight. Keep your feet about shoulder width apart and your arms slightly away from your body. Close your eyes and focus on completely relaxing every single muscle in your body. Start at the very top of your head and work your way down. Relax your forehead, relax your eyebrows, relax your mouth, your jaw, etc. Work your way down to the very end of your toes until your whole body feels like a puddle of goo. You may fall asleep before you get to your toes, that’s perfectly acceptable.
Visualization: While we used a little visualization in Autogenic Relaxation, it’s a very powerful technique that can be used on it’s own, in a slightly more concentrated way, as well. Try picturing a relaxing setting in your mind. Let’s take a quiet beach, for example. Now focus on feeling every aspect of that scene. Feel the warm sun on your skin, smell the sea, feel the wind tousle your hair and the sand between your toes. Don’t let that image go until you actually feel/smell/hear everything associated with that scene.
We can use these three techniques to destress at anytime, for as long or short of a window as we have available. There are lots of other ways to relax as well, so feel free to experiment with multiples and see what works best for you. And please, enjoy those candles, bubble baths, glasses of wine, etc. There’s nothing wrong with slowing down and enjoying yourself with a relaxing activity. Just know that relaxation has never been, and never will be, for sale.