“Relax!” Just “relax!” It’s such an overused, everyday word, but do we even know what it really means? Have you given any thought to how and when you relax, and if it’s working for you?
Let’s be honest. We Americans love our leisure activities, but most of us stink at really relaxing. We all think we know how to do it naturally, but in reality, we can use a little (or a lot of) help doing it properly.
I was recently asked, “What do you do to relax?” which really got me thinking about my personal relaxation. Do I ever truly relax, or just think I’m relaxing?
I can’t speak for every woman, but I know that many of us walk around with perpetual “Computer Brain” Syndrome (yep, I just made that term up). Every time I try to describe to my husband what the inside of my mind feels like, I refer to a computer with about 20 windows open simultaneously.
This picture cropped up last year on Reddit, and (not surprisingly) went viral because there are so darn many of us who found this all too true! A man asked his wife to draw what was on her mind, and this was the result:
Out of sheer curiosity, I did one of these myself, and the result was very similar. (Seriously, try it! You’ll be shocked how much is actually “on your mind” at one time!)
So, first and foremost, get in touch with what’s going on in your own head. If this is what the inside of your mind looks like, no matter what your body is doing, are you ever really relaxed? Probably not.
There are plenty of ways to cope with lots going on in your mind, and for me, the answer is usually to get it out of my head and into writing. I lo-o-o-ve lists! You can do this in any way you choose – buy a planner, use a whiteboard, use Post-Its, jot thoughts and to-do’s in a notebook (or awesome digital note-taking app like Evernote), etc. etc.
But, there’s an important second part to this equation, after you find ways to organize your mind. What are you doing when you’re (so-called) “relaxing”? I realized that there’s a fine line between things that actually contribute to relaxation, or not. Even if you enjoy an activity, it doesn’t necessarily result in real relaxation.
For example, I used to think that I was relaxing while being engaged by technology, because it felt like “me time” to just cruise social media on my phone. However, browsing Instagram, going through my emails, checking this app or that app doesn’t contribute at all to me feeling calmer or more at peace. It can even cause stress!
We rarely watch TV, but we’re big Netflix people, and the same can be said about that. Although Netflix time is downtime, it’s not really relaxation time in the truest sense of the word. Yes, it’s enjoyable and all, and not stressful, but it doesn’t allow the mind to disengage and truly wind down. No matter what you’re watching, it’s mental stimulation.
On that note, exposure to the blue light waves emitted by anything with a screen can have some worrisome side effects, including disruption of your body’s melatonin production (necessary for proper sleep) and a shift in your internal sleep/wake cycle.
So, if you’re relaxing with a screen in your hand, chances are, you’re not truly relaxing. And your mind certainly isn’t! I’ve gotten more careful about this, and stay off my phone entirely for the final hour before bed. I also try to stay off my phone during any other time of day when I’m targeting relaxation.
True relaxation comes from moments when you can achieve calm by clearing your mind and quieting all the thoughts that typically swirl around. So, again, if your version of relaxing is, say, catching up on to-do’s (like bill-paying or emailing), that doesn’t count – it’s not really allowing yourself to fully relax. I realized that I’ve been guilty of this, as I think most of us are.
We’re in the age of multi-tasking, where we’ve been conditioned to feel that we always need to be doing something (and doing something else while we do that). We’re go, go, go at all times of day, and we’re always “connected.” Yet the more “connected” we are, the less connected we seem to be with our own minds and bodies.
I hate to blame technology, but smartphones are a driving force behind this new mental “ball-and-chain” burden. Think about your phone: How many notifications pop up in just one day? It’s way more mentally stressful than it gets credit for!
My phone sanity tip? Turn off all non-critical push notifications, if you’re able. (On Android 7.0 Nougat, I can control app by app if I want a notification icon + sound, a silent notification icon, or neither. I switched to “neither” for all but a select few apps!) A quiet phone = a happy mind! Ask yourself: Do you really need to be notified each time, say, someone follows you or likes your photo? Can’t it wait until the next time you open the app?
So, when it comes time to relax, and I mean relax relax, we need to be mindful of how we’re going about it – mind and body. In today’s busy world, it may be tough to find peaceful moments, but being able to be alone with your mind (no external stimuli) is the first key to quality relaxation. Getting in a comfortable position and tuning in to the way your body feels is super critical, but you can’t do that if your mind is racing at the speed of light or there are a million distractions.
Not enough can be said of the importance of quiet when it comes to seeking true relaxation, or very soft music if you aren’t comfortable with absolute silence. Before bed is awesome for that, but you can tap into it other times of day as well! Your car or shower can become a wonderful private oasis, so don’t overlook those opportunities for peace!
Speaking of music, I highly recommend the station “Buddha Bar” on Pandora. It’s very New Age-y and chock-full of calming (mostly lyric-less) music, which I usually pop on while I shower and get ready. It’s a great way to get your mind at peace before starting your day or to accent your meditation!
I wouldn’t be doing relaxation full justice without mentioning the power of breath (which you yogis already know!), and I can’t sing its praises enough. Breathing is relaxation is breathing. Here is a quick summary of some common techniques. I do a variation of #1, with an exhale that’s usually about 5-6 counts, compared to my shorter 3-count inhale.
Progressive relaxation (#3 in the article) is fabulous, and gets better/deeper the more you practice! The quiet and dark of bedtime is perfect for honing this. I love all of Andrew Johnson’s apps (available for $2.99 for Android and Apple devices) which open with him doing a guided progressive relaxation. No experience needed!
So, whether you are starting from scratch or just tweaking your current relaxation routine, it’s important that you make the time to really allow yourself to disengage from daily stressors, and truly relax. Put down the phone, turn off the TV, shut out distractions, and instead, tune into you.
Wishing you healthier, happier days!