As we’ve discussed in previous columns, Relax, as a line of defense against stress, revolves around putting your body in a relaxed state that is incompatible with stress and keeping it there for 20-30 minutes. Engaging in activities such as meditation on a regular basis will short-circuit the stress response and replace it with a relaxation response.
When introducing relaxation training to students and clients I always give them four questions to answer after practicing one of the activities:
- What did you like about this activity?
- What did you dislike about this activity?
- What types of personal stressors might this activity be effective against?
- What potential barriers do you see that might stop you from using this activity regularly?
For example, you might love meditation and find it very effective against a personal stressor such as over-thinking everything. Despite loving it and finding it very effective you dislike the time it takes to meditate and finding 20 minutes of uninterrupted quiet time is a real barrier for you against meditating on a regular basis.
Whenever I get a mixed response like this it sends up a red flag in my mind indicating a potential values conflict. This occurs when you face two competing values. For the example above they would be; (1) the value you place on meditation and true relaxation and (2) the value you place on other activities that consume the remaining 1420 minutes in your day (1440 – 20 minutes to meditate). This isn’t good or bad, right or wrong, it just is. In the grand scheme of things in your life, you value meditation and true relaxation less than the other things you spend your time pursuing.
Creating a lifestyle that places a high priority on self-care activities such as relaxation training requires carving out time in your schedule to practice them. In essence it means valuing and prioritizing them over other activities that you currently spend time on. While this sounds relatively simple to do, in actuality it might represent a major paradigm shift for you, especially if you are super busy, overbooked, and view relaxation and self-care as pampering or being self-absorbed.
In order for relaxation training to become a habit, and part of your lifestyle, you have to value it enough to commit to it other things that compete with it for your time and energy. Many people value relaxation training and have built it into their daily lifestyles. Others value it but have not made it a priority. Lastly, there are others who do not value it and view it as wasting time when there is work to be done. Which category do you fit into?
If you are in the middle group and value relaxation training but just can’t seem to find a way to build it into your lifestyle you might try the following approach to be helpful.
1. Acknowledge that you are stressed and need to build relaxation training into your daily routine.
2. Accept the fact that doing this will take time away from something else you are currently doing.
3. Accept that relaxation training is going to take time (give it 3 months) and will not be a smooth process. There is no instant gratification. You will experience frustration and mental pain and suffering as you learn and practice relaxation techniques.
4. Commit to a schedule and accept that you can co-exist with your frustration, pain and suffering as you become more proficient and start to integrate relaxation into your lifestyle.
5. Start Slowly and Build to 20 minutes. All of the classic activities that have been proven to induce a relaxation response last for about 20 minutes, the minimum time needed to achieve a relaxed state. Make that your goal and start slowly. I usually start with 5 minutes and add 1-2 minutes a week until students and clients can sit quietly for 20 minutes. At that point they practice 3-4 times a week for the full duration. In the meantime, be aware that research has shown that as little as a few good breaths can help center you and reduce some of your stress.
Here is a quick activity to get a jump on my next column, Diaphragmatic Breathing.
Activity: A Few Good Breaths
1. The next time you feel stressed stop what you are doing and focus your attention on your breathing.
2. Take five deep breaths.
3. Slowly breathe in through your nose and fill your lungs completely.
4. As you breathe in through your nose, rest your hands on your belly and feel your belly push out as your diaphragm pushes down against it.
5. Hold that breath for a second and feel the tightness in your belly, chest, and shoulders.
6. Now slowly empty your lungs.
7. As you exhale through your nose feel your belly push back and your diaphragm rise back into place.
8. Feel the tension in your belly, chest, and shoulders dissipate as you exhale.
9. Take four more deep breaths.
10. For the remaining breaths when you inhale say to yourself; “In with relaxation” and when you exhale say “Out with Tension.”
Do this a couple of times a day when you feel stressed. It will help you get into the habit of using your breathing to help you relax.
Until the next time remember to Stress Less and Live More.
Dr Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a semi-retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in NJ.