Life is stressful. From health and safety worries to balancing work and family, we have a lot on our plates.
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“What I hear from my clients the most is that it’s hard to turn off their minds. They’re constantly going, which prevents them from relaxing,” says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. “But we need to think of relaxing not as a stopping point, but as a necessary pause.”
Even if you know relaxation is beneficial, too much time on life’s hamster wheel may have you wondering where to start. Dr. Albers shares her blueprint for mastering the art of being Zen.
Why can’t you relax and stop thinking?
While many talk the talk, few have been taught to walk the walk when it comes to relaxation. “Our culture focuses on the go-go-go. It stresses that you should constantly be doing something,” says Dr. Albers. “As a result, downtime can feel foreign or uncomfortable.”
The need to be productive can feel like a vise-grip squeezing every part of your life. That’s why quarantine measures may have felt as jarring as pulling the emergency brake on a runaway train.
“This period has opened our eyes. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, you could tell that people struggled with the idea of relaxing. They were like, ‘What can I do during this time? Clean my closets? Read 100 books?’ They could not wrap their minds around this concept even when they finally had time to do it.”
Dr. Albers adds that relaxation has long been treated as a luxury — not a necessity. “Not many people will say, ‘Let’s schedule some relaxation time into the day.’ And most of us were never taught the skill of relaxing as kids.”
How to teach yourself to relax
While relaxation means different things to different people, Dr. Albers suggests eight ways to make it happen for you.
1. Get rid of the guilt
Give yourself permission to relax. “It’s necessary to recharge our batteries, and we need to accept and allow for that,” notes Dr. Albers. “So don’t feel guilty about it. Recognize that relaxation is essential and not a guilty pleasure.”
2. Practice makes perfect
Just like any skill you want to master, you need to practice relaxing. (Say what?) “We usually attempt to move into relaxation mode when we’re in crisis — and then try to learn to relax in that moment. That’s like trying to learn to swim in the middle of a wave instead of in calm waters,” says Dr. Albers.
“If we practice relaxing when we’re calm instead of revved up, we’ll get better at it and be able to transition into relaxation more easily.”
3. Learn how to control your breathing
Studies have shown that you can lower your heart rate by controlling your breathing. “It moves your body into relaxation mode,” says Dr. Albers.
She suggests a technique called the squeegee breath:
- Close your eyes.
- Imagine a window squeegee at the top of your head.
- As you breathe out, imagine the squeegee pushing toxic thoughts and energy down to your toes and out your body, like dirty water at the bottom of a window.
- Then, breathe in deeply and imagine positive thoughts coming in like fresh, clean water.
- Continue to breathe in and out.
Playing a wind instrument, such as a flute or trumpet, can also be calming. They can help improve breathing patterns because you have to control your breath while making notes.
4. Move out of your head and into your body
Changing physical sensations during moments of stress can help quiet anxious thoughts.“Anything soothing to the body can help. It can be as simple as cocooning in a warm blanket or doing some mindful movements or exercises,” explains Dr. Albers.
Movements that release muscle tension are key. “One that I recommend is called the ragdoll. Let your shoulders drop down like a ragdoll. People are often surprised at how much tension they’re carrying when they do that.”
5. Try some forest therapy
Forest therapy is simply getting outside into green space. Studies have shown it reduces blood pressure and boosts mood. “Even if you can’t get outside, sitting next to a window can help you unwind and relax,” says Dr. Albers.
6. Use technology carefully
Technology can be friend or foe, depending on how you use it. “We forget how to relax because we’re always plugged in, which re-emphasizes that sense of constantly having to do something,” says Dr. Albers.
“So put your phone away, relax without technology and see how that feels,” she suggests. “But you can also use technology to relax by listening to soothing music or using an app that walks you through relaxation exercises.”
7. Discover what works for you
While hours of reality TV may help your friend unwind, it may put you on edge — and that’s normal, says Dr. Albers. “Take note of when you feel the most relaxed,” Dr. Albers recommends. “Relaxing is so individual. It could be anything from looking out the window to exercising, volunteering or painting. Find what works best for you.”
8. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is about being present in the moment. “When you look too far ahead, you can become anxious. So to relax, try to enjoy and take in each moment instead of worrying about what’s happening next,” says Dr. Albers.
Why is relaxation important?
Relaxation takes time and a commitment to the moment. “I recommend people set their phone timer for at least 20 minutes so that you don’t worry about the time,” Dr. Albers says. “Relaxation is more of a feeling than a thought. The measure of relaxation is how you feel in your body, not when you think you have to get back to more pressing concerns.”
As you relax more, you may find yourself snapping at your loved ones less. But benefits go beyond a more pleasant demeanor.
“When you stay in a heightened state of stress, it wears your body down, making it more vulnerable,” notes Dr. Albers. “You can often tell when somebody has been stressed over a long period of time. You see it in their skin. Their hair starts turning gray. Sometimes, they have more illnesses or colds. Relaxation leads to more strength and resilience.”
A body under constant stress is like an engine that’s continuously being revved. “Relaxation is like shifting into a lower gear and cruising for a while, letting your body regenerate and recover.”