The body and the mind are connected. It’s not a coincidence that you physically don’t feel good when you have a lot on your mind, or that you feel stronger or healthier when things in your life are going well. When we have a lot of stress in our lives, our bodies’ “alarm system” helps us deal with the stress, and then get things back to normal. This alarm system lives in our bodies’ limbic system. When something really dangerous or overwhelming is happening to us, our brains and bodies go into overdrive. We get really focused on the stress, our bodies get really revved up (our hearts race, we sweat more, we have a burst of energy, we can only focus on that dangerous thing, etc.) and we are ready to fight the danger or get away fast! We expect to get away from the danger and not need this alarm system for a long time. However, that’s not always the reality of some people’s lives. Some of us have stress that doesn’t stop, and when that alarm system can’t shut off, it starts to take a toll on us.
Here’s a different way to understand it. Think about a car. At a reasonable speed, like 50mph, the engine hums and the car drives for a long time without any significant wear or tear. But, drive that same car at 100mph for a long time, and eventually the engine will overheat, parts will break down and the car is worn out. Why? Cars have the ability to go 100 mph, so why doesn’t it last as long? Because the car’s engine, just like our bodies, are not designed to go 100mph all the time – we can handle short bursts of time at that breakneck speed, but our bodies are not designed to be on alert all the time.
When we experience stress for long periods of time, we see the wear on us, just like we see it on a car. For our minds, this may come out as an inability to concentrate on things like schoolwork, overwhelming emotions like fear or sadness, and nervousness and worry most of the time. For our bodies, we may feel tired, feel like we can’t eat (or we can’t stop eating), and have poor sleep (or we want to sleep all the time) to name a few. If this goes on long enough, we are more at risk for things like heart disease, diabetes, depression and suicide to name a few. This is why we shouldn’t ignore stress and give ourselves permission to learn how to relax as a way to take care of ourselves and recover from the stress in our lives.
“I RELAX WHEN I SLEEP”: Good sleep is essential for good health. Relaxation and rest are definitely connected, and achieve similar good things for us, but are not the same thing. Being awake and relaxing helps us heal and recover from the stress in our lives. It works to turn off our alarm system and can help us get ready for sleep. Worry, stress, a “racing mind” and a “wound up” body can lead to sleep problems like insomnia (an inability to sleep). Being able to relax while awake can open the door to restorative sleep.
BEING BORED VERSUS BEING RELAXED Boredom and relaxation are different. People that are used to “being on the go” constantly may describe feeling bored if they are asked to relax. There are two things that go into knowing the difference between being bored and being relaxed – energy and intent.
When you have a big amount of energy, and you try to achieve stillness or reduce your activity, you can start to feel conflict – too much energy and nowhere to go with it. That’s one way to understand boredom – you’re here and you have all this pent up energy, but you want to be there and use it. (I’m in this class that I can’t leave and I don’t have the interest/energy to focus on the topic. I want to be with outside with my friends hanging out and talking about that new game I just got. I’m so bored…)
Intent is the other thing that sets relaxation apart from boredom. You can’t make someone relax. In fact, telling someone to relax or calm down can feel like a demand more than a helpful suggestion. If you decide you want to relax, you have intent to do that activity. You plan to do little, and find calm “on purpose”, not because you’re missing out on something or stuck doing something you don’t want to do. You’re here and you’re using a smaller amount of energy doing what you want to do. (I’m sitting in my room, listening to my favorite music, and taking a moment to breathe. I’m feeling relaxed…)
NATURE AS OUR RELAXATION PARTNER Nature is all around us. From the pets we share our homes with, to the grass and trees outside, to the sky filled with clouds and a beautiful warm sun, nature is an expert on relaxation. Spend an hour with your dog or cat, and let them show you what it means to live in the moment. They may sleep, or play, or enjoy how you simply stroke their fur like it’s the only place to be on Earth. Sit in the grass for 10 minutes and let yourself experience the feel of the ground beneath you, the wind or sun on your skin, and listen to the sounds around you (this is also a good mindfulness skill, by the way). Nature doesn’t plan or scheme or stress, it just is.
HOBBIES AS RELAXATION SKILLS Remember boredom vs. relaxation? Energy and intent… with just a small amount of energy and the desire to relax, we are set up to succeed. Doing what we like makes us feel good. That’s why having a hobby that you enjoy can double as a relaxation skill, especially if it’s a hobby that allows for some calm times. Something like playing a sport or video games that may encourage some competitive spirit may not quite do the trick. Instead, think about trying something like hiking, walking, artwork, writing, dancing, knitting, music, reading. It should be an activity you feel motivated to do (energy), want to do it (intent) and involves reduced activity levels.
SOCIAL MEDIA – LEARNING TO “UNPLUG” Ahh, the Internet. A wealth of information, endless things to look at, and unlimited connections to others. Many of us give hours of our life to social media and surfing the net every day, lulling our brains into non-stop activity, like being on a “brain treadmill”. Scrolling through posts and watching You Tube videos of cats playing the piano can be hours of fun, but there are some really effective ways to use the resources online to relax. Relaxation is an individual activity – only you relax in exactly the way you need to – so we recommend unplugging from others when you are doing relaxation. Pay attention to your thoughts, your feelings, your mind, your body. Everyone else will be fine for a little while and you’ll be back. This time is for you. There are some great apps and resources online that can provide guided imagery, relaxing music, and meditation right at your fingertips, and this is just the beginning. You don’t need to use the Internet to relax, but if it’s available to you, it’s another tool in your relaxation toolbox to consider.