It seems like relaxing is something everyone should be able to do, but those of us who are constantly stressed, are workaholics, or have certain health issues don't have an easy "off" switch. Relaxation is something we actually have to learn and practice, much like happiness. And, like happiness, learning to relax is extremely important for your health and well-being. Let's take a look at the ways we can beat chronic tension and finally slow down.
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Deal with the Common Causes of Daily Stress
The first thing to examine is if your lifestyle is interfering with your ability to relax. We all get stressed out now and again, but a bad work environment, fights at home, money problems, and even clutter around you can keep you constantly on "high alert." It's hard to relax when something's constantly nagging at you—whether it's at the back of your mind or you're well aware of the stressors.
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On the other hand, maybe it's not external causes that are keeping you tense but your own values or personality. The Wall Street Journal notes that about one-quarter of the population could be classified as a workaholic, and about 3% of the population even gets sick when they attempt to relax on vacation. Stress has become a habit:
For some people, the withdrawal of stress can be similar to withdrawing from steroids—including changes in glucose metabolism and dramatic mood swings, says Conor Liston, a psychiatry resident at Weill Medical College in New York City who was the lead investigator of a brain study on stress.
Other people seem to get so addicted to the adrenaline rush from stress that they gravitate to high-pressure jobs and keep piling on new challenges; some subconsciously push deadlines and complicate projects, creating stress unnecessarily.
Put someone like that on a beach for a week, and it's no wonder they can't relax. For them, the best vacations involve physical or mental stimulation, anything from hang-gliding to culinary classes.
Relaxation strategies for daily stress:
- Take some time to think about stressors you deal with on a daily basis and ways you can start acting on them, if possible. For example, it's possible you're experiencing secondhand stress from people around you; you might have to distance yourself from them to take care of yourself.
- Keep a journal to think things out, boost your self-esteem, and also help you deal with stress in your life, even if you can't directly act on them.
- It might sound silly, but schedule time to worry about things that are bothering you. Doing that kind of compartmentalizing could reduce overall stress and anxiety.
- Make sure you're taking care of the "three pillars of health"—nutrition, exercise, and sleep. If one of these are lacking in your life, then your body will be out of whack and you'll be less able to cope with stress.
- On a related note, fix your posture. Tense muscles and stress go hand in hand. When you sit or stand properly, it relieves tightness in a muscle, helping you physically relax, which in turn calms your mind.1
- If you're a workaholic, stop trying to be perfect or so productive to the point where you never have any downtime. That's easier said than done when you've a very driven person, and it'll take some work to change your perspective, know your boundaries, and accept what you can and can't control.
We'll go over more specific relaxation techniques below, but dealing with reasons for any chronic stress is a good start.
Learn How to Take Proper Breaks
Taking breaks is the key to avoiding burnout, but some of us don't really "break" even when we say we're going to. In the back of our minds, we might still be thinking about work or doing things that are work but don't look like it (e.g., checking email on our phones).
To take a real break, you need to become comfortable with doing "nothing"—like just drinking a cup of tea and looking out the window or sitting on a park bench without feeling like you should be somewhere else.
Relaxation strategies for work:
- If you can't bear to do nothing, find activities that help you recharge, such as reading a book, going for a walk, or simply listening to music. Or take a brain-boosting power nap.
- Stop eating lunch at your desk. It makes you less productive overall anyway.
- Unplug. I don't agree with those who think unplugging is the solution to all modern ills, but constant notifications and digital noise make it all that much harder to truly relax.Turn off all but the most important alerts.
- Too busy to take breaks? Learn how to say no and purge your schedule like you would a packed fridge. And when you free up time by cutting things out, don't fill in the blankswith something else.
- Learn how to use your vacation time wisely. Proper breaks also include vacations, which most of us don't take enough of.
Make Relaxation a Habit
Different activities are more relaxing than others, depending on your personality. Maybe sitting in front of the TV isn't the best way for you to unwind—maybe you'd be more relaxed while gardening or writing. If classic techniques for relaxing aren't working for you, try something new.
Relaxation strategies for the long-term:
- Classic relaxation techniques include meditation, deep breathing, visualization (e.g., picturing yourself at the beach or another relaxing environment), getting a massage, andprogressive muscle relaxation.
- Psychology Today offers this five-step process to change your physiology to quickly make you feel more relaxed. It starts with orienting yourself and feeling more connected to your surroundings, then goes through slowing your breath and coaching yourself into a more relaxed state.
- Practice mindfulness, which simply means paying attention to the present moment. Often, it's hard to relax because your mind is busy somewhere else. Consider enrolling in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, an eight-week course that teaches people with chronic illnesses or medical conditions how to calm their minds and bodies.
- Try something different and active. Maybe a break from the everyday routine to take a painting class or water skiing would be relaxing to you.
- Raise your laugh quota. Spend more time with people and things that make you laugh (or convince yourself that everything is funny) and you'll find greater relaxation and a better mood.
- Remind yourself to relax. I've always had a hard time falling asleep and relaxing, but lately this one deceptively simple technique has been doing wonders: think of restful language. Often we don't even realize how tense we are, but thinking or reading words like "relax" and "let go" can turn that all around.
See a Professional for Underlying Mental or Physical Issues
If you have an anxiety disorder, ADHD, or other medical concern and you still feel you never can really relax, seek out help from a doctor. A medical professional would better be able to find the reasons why you're having a hard time relaxing and offer therapy or other solutions to finally get the relaxation you need.
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