Benefits of Learning to Relax
People sometimes say that learning to relax can be easier said than done. And frequently, that’s because we overthink things. It’s rather cyclic. But the cycle of stressful thinking can be broken. Here are some ideas to start with:
Meditation is an exercise in mindfulness, or noticing what the mind is doing without judgment or trying to alter it. This may sound odd since meditation is frequently said to involve “clearing the mind,” or “stopping your thoughts.” What well-intended teachers are referring to is the fact that as you become accustomed to the constant noise that the mind generates, it becomes like wallpaper in the background, so much so that you are no longer distracted by it. Like when your air conditioner or heater turns on but you don’t notice it because you are used to it.
Becoming mindful allows you to relax in the moment because you are becoming more okay with reality as it is. This does not mean that you don’t feel things, it just means that you are clearing the mind of the clutter that judgment creates.
Meditation involves sitting or lying down (with proper posture), and practicing smooth, rhythmic belly-breathing while noticing (not changing) what the mind is doing. When you become engaged with your thoughts in a judging way, or in a way that creates discomfort, you simply name it (“Ah, I’m distracted,” or “Oh, I’m judging myself or my situation), then come back to the experience of your breath. Many master meditators describe the noisy judging mind as the ‘monkey mind’ that jumps all over the place; the way to calm the monkey mind is to give it a job of simply watching the breathing as the thoughts chatter in the background. And when you notice the monkey jumping back to judging thoughts, etc., you simply bring him or her back to the experience of breathing.
Meditation and relaxation can look very similar, but the intention of each is a little different:
- Meditation is designed to help you see the antics of the mind without being so distracted by them. This may help relaxation, but the relaxation itself is secondary
- Relaxation, on the other hand, is more designed to focus on the muscles and nervous system of the body.
Progressive relaxation is an exercise that involves becoming aware of tension in your body, intentionally flexing each area, and then relaxing it. Here’s a basic approach:
- Start by lying down with a pillow under your knees
- Scan your body from head to toe or toe to head, noting areas that seem tense
- Next, starting at your feet, (either both or the left side then the right side of the body), inhale while tensing the muscles in your feet, then exhale while releasing the muscles. You may choose to do this a couple of times, but once is fine
- Then simply move up the body, one muscle or muscle group at a time, and flex the muscle(s) on the inhale, then release on the exhale
- Repeat this, attending to each part of your body. Be sure you cover both the front and back of your body. Experiment with how you move around your body. Do what feels best; some work from feet to head, others from left to right.
This can be done sitting as well. One of the most helpful involves learning to relax the shoulders: Inhale and bring both shoulders up towards your ears (a shrug). Feel the shrug. Then on the exhale, dramatically release! Just let those shoulders fall with the exhale.
While Yoga and Tai Chi address these, I want to give you three specific exercises that can be done anywhere. Please check with your doctor, especially if you have any heart or lung/breathing issues! Read about proper breathing here.
- 4-7-8 Breathing. Inhale to a count of 4. Hold to a count of 7 (some find it easier to use 4-6-8…this is fine). Exhale to a count of 8. This means that you need to get in enough air on the inhale to be able to hold to 7 and exhale to 8. Most folks find this requires a couple of tries to get the timing right. Your count does not need to be slow. My count is in seconds (inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds). Yours may be faster or slower. You’ll likely need to inhale a little deeper than normal and exhale a little slower than normal.
- Square Breathing. Square breathing is also based on counting, but this time, it is 4-4-4-4. Inhale to 4, hold to 4, exhale to 4, and repeat this 4 times. (You can keep repeating in blocks of 4).
Both of these are doing a lot of biochemical and brainwave changes. Get in touch if you have questions. Also, consider following my Gate Healing, PLLC Facebook page since I frequently share neuroscience and biology articles that address this kind of thing.
Yoga, T’ai Chi, etc.
Some people prefer Yoga because it is more stationary and full of wonderful stretching. This is great! Yoga is a great place to learn meditation and breathing. Those who prefer Yoga will eventually find that they enter a flow state through this practice. I tend to suggest that folks start with a simple Hatha Yoga before trying more complicated forms.
Other people, like me, prefer a little more movement. T’ai Chi is a graceful martial art that looks like you are moving through water. It is also a great place to meditate and breathe. It is more of a moving meditation. Those who enjoy it will get into a flow state. Yang style T’ai Chi Chuan is the more fluid and consistently graceful form of T’ai Chi, while T’ai Chi Chin has moments of graceful speed/pop. There are many versions of T’ai Chi, please get in touch with me if you have questions.
Going for a walk in nature
I love the sound of the beach. The water, the birds, all of it. Even the smell relaxes me. But I seem to find my time in the mountains even more relaxing. As it turns out, science supports the idea that ‘green space’ is more relaxing than ‘blue space’ (water). If I remember correctly, being around trees and plants (ie in the woods) puts you around material that is both living and decaying; the decaying trees, etc. put off a chemical that calms the human brain! Of course, the sounds of birds, and the shade and colors of the sun through green leaves also have an impact visually.
Remember though, if blue spaces relax you more, then go with that! Just because science backs up one thing, it does not mean that is what is best for you!
Warm bath or shower
While many find showers to be a bit more invigorating, they can be very relaxing as well. The warmth of the water of a bath or shower has a relaxing effect, and when you breathe in the moistened air, it helps your lungs. Further helping the relaxation is the sudden temperature change when you get out of the shower. I find it useful to leave the bathroom door closed so getting out of the shower/tub isn’t so jarring with cold air. Once you’ve dried off and are dressed, you can crawl into bed and cover up and practice your breathing, or just let your mind drift into nice places.
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and it is a relatively new, and really interesting experience for those that get it. Not everybody experiences ASMR though. It is often described as ‘brain tingles.’ For those that have never experienced this, it’s ok for it to sound really weird! But for those who do not know what it is, but have experienced it, you’re about to have a light bulb go off!
ASMR is a physical experience of intense relaxation, and even tingling in the head, chest, etc. that is extremely pleasant. It quickly can put you in a flow state, like meditation.
So what is it already??!!
Ok, if you have ever heard the sound of rustling paper and just tranced out, or watched somebody writing and felt relaxed, or even watched somebody shining shoes, washing windows, or even heard people whispering or even eating and gotten oddly calm, you’ve experienced ASMR. It is okay and not harmful. There are plenty of oddball-seeming ASMR videos (one of a lady eating crunchy pickles!!) out there. Just google that term. Many of the videos are aimed at helping you find what your “ASMR Triggers” are (if you have any). Give it a go! If you just find yourself shrugging your shoulders and saying, “I don’t get it . . . why would a video/recording of a lady eating pickles get 1.5 MILLION views?” then you may not have an ASMR experience, which is fine.
If you do have the triggers, then you can use these sounds, sights, etc. to help you relax. Just be careful to not overuse them as you can become almost dependent on them, and they can seem to lose their effectiveness. Should this happen, just stop using them for a few weeks and then try again.
Is there a science to ASMR?
Since it’s fairly new, the understanding of ASMR is still being studied, but current research is showing that it may be related to a version of synesthesia (where you hear colors, taste sounds, etc.). No, this does not mean you are crazy or flashing back to any hallucinatory drugs you may have used! Synesthesia happens naturally for some people, and it can be leveraged in some very interesting ways! ASMR is not as dramatic but may be related to the same type of brain activity.
*Updated December 5, 2023
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Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level 2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.