What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘relaxation’? Does it conjure images of sun-bathing on a beach, pampering oneself at a spa getaway or treating oneself to a yoga retreat? For many of us, when we think of relaxation we think we need to go somewhere to “do it”. Western culture, with its roots in Puritanism, hasn’t given relaxation the proper understanding and value that other cultures have; cultures that understand that truly relaxing is an important key to maintaining good health and emotional harmony. Western culture has a tendency to view relaxing as an indulgent luxury that involves travel and spending money to achieve. I hear people say, “I can’t wait until my vacation next month when I can finally relax!” If we are constantly putting off relaxing until the right time, we are missing out on opportunities of relaxing right now and feeling immediate positive effects.
Why is stress such an issue in today’s society? Stress itself isn’t the problem but chronic stress. The stress response, or the sympathetic nervous system response, is designed to help us react quickly to possible dangers and ensure our survival. That’s why it is also referred to as ‘the fight or flight response’. Whether we are running away from a wild animal (as our ancestors did) or are maneuvering in busy traffic or trying to make a work deadline, the response is the same. When the SNS kicks in, it shunts blood away from our digestive organs into our limbs, heart, lungs and brain. This gives us the best chance of escaping the possible danger. All mammals have this response but animals are often better at returning to homeostasis than people. After an animal experiences a stressed state and are in a safe space, they may physically shake for a time to help process and clear the stress hormones. People can do this as well, though we seldom allow ourselves to. It can be much harder to let ourselves relax and let the parasympathetic response or the ‘rest and digest’ part of the nervous system engage. This is also the part of the nervous system that activates our own healing resources. If we are experiencing chronic stress, our healing abilities are compromised and illness or injury will certainly follow at some point.
Now that we’ve talked about the physiological aspects of stress and relaxation, let’s explore the emotional reasons why a stressful state may prevail. The other reason we hold onto stress is because we have egos. The human ego identifies with everything that happens. This is a process that happens so instantaneously and unconsciously that we don’t even realize it. That means we identify with the stressor and we identity with our experience of being stressed. This identity with stress can feed any number of stories or issues we already have and identify with. Being busy and stressed can help feed a ‘need to matter’ issue, it can help us feel superior or inferior to others. Stress can be a competition in the workplace where it seems that the amount of stress directly correlates to how worthy one is. It can feed avoidance, keep us from taking responsibility for something or give us excuses, “I’m sorry I lost my temper and yelled at you. I’m just so stressed out.” If we have a deep safety issue or fear that the world is a dangerous place, our identity with stress can confirm beliefs that it’s not safe to let our guard down or let go of control, because anything could happen at any moment.
When I am working with clients who have experienced trauma and whose systems are in a constant heightened state of stress, one of the first things we do is work to cultivate a sense of safety so that they can begin to relax. At first it may be very difficult to do so because relaxation is almost a foreign state of being. It’s not uncommon for clients to begin to drop down and enter a deep state of relaxation only to be jolted out of it by the stress response and often a related issue of not feeling safe to let go. This is when having a consistent practice of relaxation techniques can be so invaluable in retraining our nervous system to be more congruent with a relaxed state.
Rather than putting off relaxation for the right time and place, practice relaxing daily and at times when one wouldn’t necessarily think to do it. Driving is an excellent time to consciously relax the neck and shoulders, as well as the face and jaw. Humming while driving or taking public transportation during your daily commute can help to tone the vagus nerve, an important cranial nerve that supplies the heart, lungs, upper digestive track and surrounding organs and is a key nerve in the stress response. Deep, low, guttural humming and toning while making various ‘O’ shapes with the mouth can also naturally engage diaphragmatic breathing which calms the stress response as well.
Another simple relaxation tool that can be done almost anywhere at any time is the most common yogic hand mudra called the Gyan mudra. Simply place your thumb and pointer finger together and try to focus on easy, diaphragmatic breathing. You can do this while driving or sitting in a meeting or taking a test and this will help to bring calm and focus to the brain. You can also spend a few minutes holding each finger which balances the Jin Shin energy pathways and can help to create emotional harmony as well. This too can be done anywhere at any time. Lastly, I recommend beginning and ending each day with a simple relaxation practice. Upon waking up in the morning, take a few minutes to lay in bed and stretch and yawn and just do whatever your body asks for. Pretend you are a cat and luxuriate in the physical sensations before you reach for your phone or that first cup of coffee. Similarly, when you have turned off the light and are about to sleep, take a moment to scan your body from head to foot and see if there are areas of tension. Imagine that you’re under a waterfall of golden light that is running over you, through you, and washing away any stress from your day and inviting those areas of tension to relax and let go. Being able to truly relax is integral to maintaining good health and lucky for us, it is one of the great pleasures of being human.