• Shanna LoPresti, MA, AMFT

Don't Tell Me To Relax

‘Relax’ – many of us have heard this said to us when we are upset or angry. While not useful as a directive, the benefits of relaxing are huge. Our level of calm influences our response to loved ones and impacts our perception of safety and danger.

We live in a world that seems to have sped up. Demands for our attention are high. In our ‘downtime’ we may check social media, read the news, or listen to podcasts. But frequently these activities don’t bring us a sense of peace.

What is the toll of all this rushing? Our bodies may be in a constant state of alert, which impairs our ability to think clearly and creatively, and process information.

When we experience consistently high levels of anxiety, we may have:

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Looping fearful thoughts

  • Loss of self-confidence

  • Feelings of being irritable, depressed, or ‘on edge’

  • Persistent sense of dread

Or other symptoms such as:

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Racing or irregular heartbeat

  • Butterflies in the stomach

  • Muscle tightness, tension headaches

  • Sweating

  • Shortness of breath

The above symptoms may be signs that our nervous system is in fight or flight mode. This is great for a gazelle when a lion is in the vicinity, or even for humans on occasion when real danger is present, but not so great for long term activation. It depletes us on multiple levels.

Additionally, the type of information we take in while our nervous systems are on high alert is mostly related to safety. We are likely to look for danger even where none exists, misunderstand others, and over-react to common stressors with anger or crying spells.

Luckily, with practice, we can get ourselves off of the autopilot of ingrained behaviors. We can consciously calm our nervous systems, helping us fully restore health, equilibrium, and well-being.

So, what are some good ways to relax? Here are some ideas:

  1. Listen to calming music. Choose a tempo and sound that helps you breathe deeper.

  2. Spend time face to face with a close friend. Connecting with others in real time literally tells your nervous system you are safe.

  3. Spend a minute or two and notice something in the natural world – a tree outside your window, a bird singing, the smell of the wind, feeling of sunshine on your face. Immerse yourself in your senses.

  4. If you have difficulty concentrating, you might want to start with physical exercise. Martial arts and yoga are helpful on many levels, but any kind will do, just get your body moving.

  5. Listen to a guided relaxation. Insight Timer is one of the free apps with hundreds of guided recordings of varying lengths.

  6. Slow your breathing. Count how long your inhale is, then extend your exhale. For example, if it takes a count of four to inhale, then exhale for a count of six.

  7. 3x3: non-judgmentally notice three things outside your body (and name them to yourself) blue mailbox, puffy clouds, sound of music. Then notice three sensations inside your body: tingling in my thighs, pressure on my eyebrows, taste of tea. Go back and forth until you notice your breathing is easier, mind is calmer, or body is less tense.

  8. Pleasant focus: scan your environment for something interesting to look at, listen to, or an object that feels pleasing to touch. Focus your attention there – searching for as many details as possible. After doing this for 30-60 seconds, bring your attention back to your body, and see if anything has changed. Then focus again on the pleasing thing until you feel more relaxed.

  9. Calm/peaceful place meditation. Imagine you are in a place in nature. Notice what you see, hear, smell, feel on your skin, taste on the air. Immerse yourself in your senses until you feel peace in your body or your breathing is slower.

  10. Learn mindfulness meditation. In addition to the previous suggestions #7-9, creating a regular practice of observing your thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally can help you create inner calm amidst chaos.

  11. See a therapist. They can help you regulate your nervous system, and teach you to change habitual responses and behaviors. Therapy can be very effective way to decrease anxiety.

Try a few and see if you have better sleep, concentration, and memory. Or if you can more easily keep your emotions in check, solve problems, or crack jokes.

Notice: The article and information contained therein is for educational purposes only and is not to be used in place of proper medical advice, nor is it intended to treat, diagnose or cure any ailments. One should always seek out a properly licensed medical professional to answer any questions or render treatment. As always please check with your doctor before engaging in any new regimen.


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