When you think of relaxing, what images come to mind? Sitting quietly? Reading? Meditating? Contemplating a sunset? Not everyone associates relaxing with calm situations. Some find thrilling stimulation such as playing a competitive game of basketball, driving a race car at high speed, or jumping out of an airplane more relaxing. People experience tension, anxiety, fear and fatigue in many different ways. Body Reactors: Some people tend to experience stress more in their bodies. For instance, if you often feel jittery, tight muscles, aches and pains, a nervous stomach, or a racing heartbeat, you're probably more of a "body reactor."
Mind Reactors: On the other hand, if you suffer more from excessive worrying, anxiety-provoking images, a racing mind, or difficulty concentrating, you may experience stress more as a "mind reactor." Most of us react to stress with both body and mind.
By matching your relaxation strategy to the type of tension you are experiencing (body or mind), you may be able to relax more easily. For example, if you are feeling more body tension, you might try muscle relaxation, walking, deep breathing, or a hot bath or sauna.
If worrying and mental fatigue are your problems, you might try a mind-focusing approach like meditation, visualization and imagery, watching television, going to the movies, listening to music, reading, or absorbing yourself (and your tension) in a hobby or game.
After hours of writing, number crunching, or talking with customers, you may feel mentally fatigued. You can become revived by switching to another activity - even if it is physically strenuous. Vigorous exercise and competitive sports are usually good for relaxing both physical and mental tension.
If one relaxation method makes you even more tense, try another. Sometimes a mental relaxer works better for body tension, and a physical relaxer relieves your mind. So experiment.
Try to choose leisure activities that balance the stresses of your job. If you sit all day, consider aerobic exercise, or walking at least part of the way to work. If your job involves mindless activity, take up an intellectually challenging hobby such as playing chess or learning a foreign language. If your days are highly structured, weekend hikes in nature can provide a restorative balance. If your work requires you to respond to others' demands, take the time for some solitary activity you enjoy.
Most of us spend much of our waking hours on "automatic pilot," or "asleep at the wheel." We're preoccupied with thinking about the past or anticipating the future. Meanwhile, the present moment slips by barely noticed.
Mindfulness involves simple keeping your attention in the present moment, without judging it as happy or sad, good or bad. It encourages living each moment - even painful ones - as fully and as mindfully as possible. Mindfulness is more than a relaxation technique; it is an attitude toward living. It is a way of calmly and consciously observing and accepting whatever is happening, moment to moment.
This may sound simple enough, but our restless, judging minds make it surprisingly difficult. As a restless monkey jumps from branch to branch, our minds jump from thought to thought.
In mindfulness meditation, you focus the mind on the present moment. This 2500-year-old Buddhist meditation tradition is thoroughly modem and relevant to our present-day lives. You don't have to be a Buddhist to practice it. Mindfulness doesn't conflict with any beliefs or traditions, either religious or scientific.
The only moment we really have is this one. And living this moment as fully aware as possible is what mindfulness practice is about. It nurtures an inner balance of mind that enables you to respond to all life situations with greater composure, clarity, and compassion. It reduces our tendency to react automatically to any circumstances.
For example, the sound of a voice (your mother, a teenager, your boss) might automatically trigger tension, anger, or fear. You can learn to just mindfully observe the reaction their voice sets off in you without responding to it or judging it.
Though the "goal" of mindfulness is simply to observe - with no intention of changing or improving anything - people are positively changed by the practice. Observing and accepting life just as it is, with all its pleasures, pains, frustrations, disappointments, and insecurities, often enables you to become calmer, more confident, and better able to cope with whatever comes along.
To develop your capacity for mindfulness, try the following exercises.
Sit comfortably on the floor or on a chair with your back, neck and head straight, but not stiff. Then:
Concentrate on a single object, such as your breathing. Focus your attention on the feeling of the air as it passes in and out of your nostrils with each breath. don't try to control your breathing by speeding it up or slowing it down. Just observe it as it is.
Your thoughts are like waves on the surface of the ocean. Don't try to stop the waves completely so that the water is flat, peaceful, and still - that's impossible. But you'll find relief from constant turbulence when you learn to observe and ride the waves.
Because the practice of mindfulness is simply the practice of moment-to-moment awareness, you can apply it to anything: eating, showering. working, talking, running errands, or playing with your children. Mindfulness takes no extra time. All that is required is that you take yourself off "automatic pilot," and stay tuned. Are you fully aware of your experience at this moment?
This is not as simple as it sounds. For example, think about your last meal. Do you remember what you ate? Did you pay attention to the taste sensations? Or was your mind elsewhere: engaged in thoughts, conversation, planning, and plotting, and nearly everything else but the experience of eating?
Try observing what you are about to eat.
How does it look?
Or observe walking. Focus on the sensations in your legs and feet. Notice how your weight shifts from foot to foot. Feel the pressure on the balls of your feet. How do your knees feel as they bend? Is the ground hard or soft? When other thoughts arise, note them. Then return to your focus on walking.
Meditation can elicit the relaxation response. It has two essential components:
Some people find it easier to focus their minds by looking at an object or a picture. Others do a walking meditation and repeat "left, right, left, right," to themselves as they move along.
Keep a detached, nonjudging observer's attitude. Don't worry about how well you are doing. All kinds of thoughts will dart through your mind: "Will my boss approve my raise?" "Did I choose the right color sofa?" "What am I having for dinner tonight?" This is normal, Simply observe the thought, and gently return to your focus.
Don't be discouraged if you can't control your thoughts for more than a few seconds at a time. Just keep bringing your mind back to your focus.
It's not necessary to feel that you are relaxing as you practice meditation. If you are struggling to make yourself relax, stop. Do something else for a while and try again later. Even if you find yourself continuously distracted by a thousand different thoughts, just accept each interruption and return to your focus. Meditation helps you develop an attitude of relaxed tolerance and acceptance toward whatever happens.
Continue meditating for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but don't set an alarm (it is too jarring). When the time's up, sit quietly for a minute before rising.
Practice meditation once every day. Lasting psychological and physiological changes may take several weeks or months, so be patient. Though the instructions are quite simple, the practice of meditation takes practice and support. Sometimes it helps to meditate with a group, or find a teacher to guide you.
Your body has two powerful systems to help protect your health: a stress response and a relaxation response. Your stress response - also known as the "fight-or-flight" response - is triggered by a real or imagined threat and a feeling of not being able to cope with it. Your body responds automatically, mobilizing for a physical struggle or quick retreat.
Surging hormones and nerve signals prepare you for flight or fight.
All this is great for surviving a physical threat, like a charging lion. But to an alarming extent, the same stress response turns on when we face emotion threats: mortgages, criticism, traffic jams, insecurities or thought of our own mortality. When our response to stress is repeatedly and chronically provoked, especially by mental fears rather than physical threats, the results can be disastrous to our health. Prolonged, repeated stress can produce physiological changes that can contribute to digestive and sleeping problems, cardiovascular disease, reproductive disorders, diminished immunity and a host of other illnesses and symptoms.
Fortunately we also have a powerful built-in healing mechanism for rest and recovery, the relaxation response is a natural set of physiological changes that offset the stress response:
By refocusing your mind and relaxing your body, you can learn to trigger your relaxation response and reduce senseless fight-or-flight responses in the face of worry or imaginary lions.
One good way to reduce the effects of stress is simply to do more things you enjoy. Indulging in ordinary personal pleasures does a lot to keep you relaxed, happy and healthy. Look for quick and easy opportunities in your everyday life to rapidly relax and refresh yourself - good films, baseball games, autumn foliage, summer sunsets.
A first step to reducing stress is to become more aware of your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, and the messages they are giving you. Many people find it difficult to focus inwardly, even for a few moments. They aren't aware of the tension in their bodies. Muscle tension or discomfort is often your body's way of letting you know that you are under stress, yet you may fail to notice the link between external events and your body tension. Try these exercises:
First, focus your attention on the outside world. For example, you may be aware of the traffic noise, the hum of a fan, the smell of coffee, the chilliness of the room. Ask yourself what you see, hear, and smell. Say to yourself
"I am aware of_____________________"
Now shift your awareness to the internal world of your feelings and physical sensations. For example, you may be aware of a tightness in your neck and shoulders, you stomach gurgling, an itchy nose, and an anxious, restless feeling. Say to yourself
"I am aware of____________________"
You'll probably discover a lot more is going on than you thought. Is it easier for you to focus on the external or the internal world?
If you have trouble focusing inward, try a "body scan." Sit or preferably lie down on your back. Allow your attention to slowly and systematically move through your body. Note any physical sensations you feel from moment to moment.
Start with awareness of your breathing. Observe the different sensations in your body as the air moves in and out of your nostrils, and fills your chest and abdomen. Just observe the sensations without judging them or trying to change them.
Next shift your attention to your toes. Scan for any sensations in your toes. If your mind wanders off, gently bring your attention back to the feeling in your toes. Concentrate on them, then move slowly up, through your whole body, becoming aware of your feet, ankles, lower legs, and knees, until you get to your face and head.
Pause at each body part, and notice any tension or other sensations. Are certain areas more tense then others? Which parts of your body can you easily feel, and which parts have little sensation? You can do a quick body scan in just a few minutes to pinpoint areas of tension. Or you can take 30 minutes or more moving very slowly through your body, as you practice the skill of focusing inwardly.
Developing an inner awareness of your body and feelings is very helpful in identifying your sources of stress. To help determine how you respond physically and mentally, you might want to write down your reactions to a recent stressful event. Here are some examples:
You may find it especially helpful to keep a "stress log" for a week or so. Describe the stressful events or situations in your life, and how you respond to them (thoughts, feelings, and body sensations and symptoms). You might start to notice some patterns. For example, you might find that whenever someone asks you to do something, you think~ "I'm too busy and way behind already." You begin to feel anxious and notice the energy drain out of your body.
You can also record positive events such as a compliment, a hug. or some physical activity, and the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations they set off. The skill to observe the reactions of your own body and mind is a way to help you learn to relax and manage stress.
Some relaxation techniques take only seconds and can be done just about any place. But to learn some of the deeper relaxation methods takes practice, and a quiet, comfortable place. You may need to put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign and turn your telephone off to insure 10 to 20 minutes of private, undisturbed time. Wear loose, comfortable clothing, sit in a comfortable chair or lie on a pad or carpeted floor with a pillow under your head. Do whatever you can to enhance your comfort: dim the lights, put on soft music, or use a relaxation or imagery tape.
Try to view your practice time as a reward and time for yourself, not as a task. Don't push yourself to do it "right." And don't expect miracles. Some relief may come immediately, but it may take time to acquire the skills needed for these techniques to work, it may take three to four weeks of practice before you really start to notice benefits.
Relaxation is generally a very safe and useful addition to regular medical care, but it is not a substitute for it. Symptoms such as pain, nervousness, diarrhea, dizziness, or depression can be caused by an underlying medical problem. Make sure you first have appropriate medical evaluation and diagnosis for persistent symptoms before undertaking relaxation techniques.
Relaxation can change your need for certain medications. For example, patients with diabetes or high blood pressure may find their need for insulin or blood pressure medication lessened with regular relaxation practice. Check with your physician before making any adjustments in your medication.
Most deep relaxation exercises and techniques are designed to decrease arousal. Don't practice while driving a car or in any situation where your safety requires full alertness and quick responses.
Many patients report a greater sense of control over their seizures with relaxation. However, some types of seizures may be triggered by a change in level of arousal, such as with sleep-onset seizure disorders, so practice these while lying down.
Not everyone finds "relaxing" relaxing. For example, in one study of anxious patients who started to meditate nearly half reported feeling more anxious. When attempting a method of deep muscle relaxation, nearly a third suffered increased restlessness, sweating, pounding heart, and rapid breathing. Many people are so used to feeling "wired" or tense that the feeling relaxed may at first feel odd to them.
One cause of relaxation-induced anxiety may be a reaction to the new sensations: floating, heaviness, tingling, or muscle twitches. These sometimes accompany states of relaxation. Other causes may be fear of loss of control or reluctance to observe inner sensations. Sometimes just practicing a relaxation exercise with your eyes open can prevent this.
Strange and unpleasant sensations usually subside with regular practice, or by switching to a different relaxation technique. If your strange or unusual sensations are very intense or distressing, stop the practice and get professional help. If you have a history of psychiatric disorders, it may be wise to consult a professional before beginning any regular relaxation practice.
Pleasurable everyday experiences can help you relax. Here are some to try:
The quieting reflex is a six-second mini-relaxation technique that is designed to counteract emergency stress reactions. It relieves muscle tightening, jaw clenching. breath holding, and activation of sympathetic nervous system. To be effective, it should be practiced frequently throughout the day and at the moment a stressful situation arises. It can be done with your eyes opened or closed.
Step 1. Become aware of what is annoying you: a ringing phone, a sarcastic comment, the urge to smoke, a worrisome thought - whatever. This becomes the cue to start the quieting reflex.
Step 2. Repeat the phrase, "Alert mind, calm body" to yourself.
Step 3. Smile inwardly with your eyes and your mouth. This stops facial muscles from making a fearful or angry expression. The inward smile is more a feeling than something obvious to anyone observing you.
Step 4. Inhale slowly to the count of three, imagining that the breath comes in through the bottom of your feet. Then exhale slowly. Feel your breath move back down your legs and out through your feet. Let you jaw, tongue, and shoulder muscles go limp.
This powerful audio course, lead by Dr. Komor, provides an extensive overview of OCD and its treatment.