We all try to find time to relax. Admittedly, with varying degrees of success. It can depend on how much we have on our plate. ‘Relaxing’ might mean coffee breaks or a good veg on the sofa with your telly. Tragically, (for some) it can be just minutes alone in the bathroom.
How much good is this doing your mental wellbeing? I want to look at what sort of relaxation will work best for our tattered, national nerves and can we do better with the limited time or resources that we have?
First, it’s important to define what relaxation should be. It’s aiming to be in a state of total calm. Muscles should be tension-free and at ease. The mind, both mild and beatific. After a good old relax the mind and body should feel as if they have been given a fresh start.
Scrolling social media while sitting on the toilet may not be quite cutting it as a mental reboot.
Symptoms of stress and tension
These are some of the symptoms of stress and tension.
Fatigue and tiredness
Anxiety, low confidence and worry
Anger and frustration
If any of the above are daily occurrences, then it's probably good to consider how well you relax and how it can it be improved.
Feeling physically and mentally calm, even for a few minutes, can make things seem more manageable. Relaxation can bring about many positive physical changes. It's reasonable to hope for a 'refresh' effect that will really help. This is what will happen when you really stop and take those few moments:
The heart beat slows down.
The muscles release tension.
Blood pressure lowers.
Relaxation techniques you can try
Relaxation is free: you don’t need gadgets, outfits or fancy courses. You just need to find a way of accepting that you may need it in your life. Then the hardest part is finding a method that will work well for you and practicing it until you are really good at it. There are tons of options that work well.
If yoga voice (sooooo infuriatingly, over-enunciatingly slow) makes you angry, don’t panic. There’s a relaxation method out there for everyone!
Progressive Muscle Relaxing (PMR) is a technique that has been shown to improve chronic pain and ease of movement1. This makes it an ideal relaxation method to try if you are stiff and sore, if you suffer from aches that stop you exercising or if you really tense up when you are stressed. It is also good for the jaw-clenchers and the teeth-grinders and has been recommended before events like exams to reduce anxiety2.
The technique involves the whole body. One by one, you should flex one individual muscle at a time, i.e. the calf, then relax that muscle. Next, move onto the thigh, flexing and relaxing and work your way up the body from toe to face or the other way around. Using a visual image in your head makes it more effective and easier to do.
Walking is the best! Not only does it bring the same proven benefits as PMR techniques, you don't even have to learn how to do it. A 15-minute lunchtime walk every day can reduce feelings of tiredness3. Plus, concentration has been shown to improve and walkers generally feel better at the end of the day.
The effects are even greater if you have somewhere lovely to walk, like a forest. The Japanese call a walk in the woods forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku). It has become really popular as a way of avoiding business burnout. Studies have shown that it can also reduce stress and blood pressure, whilst feelings of hostility and depression decrease and 'liveliness' increases4.
Alfred Vogel was a big fan of nature therapy and the regenerative powers of a natural environment. He would prescribe work in the garden and exercise in fresh outdoor spaces.
A.Vogel Self-Care Tip: Relaxing for good mental well-being!
In this video, I give my favourite pastime. It helps me to relax and to improve my mental well-being.
Listening to music. By this, I don't necessarily mean ramping up the death metal while hoovering the stairs. Albeit, that has its merits if the carpet is stubbornly fluff clogged and you have an idea to work out in your head. Fast and strong beats in music can change our brain waves. They make us alert and better able to concentrate. The slower the beat, the slower our brain waves become. A slow classical piece could induce a relaxing hypnotic or meditative state. Studies of music therapy have looked at everything from depression and ADD5, to anxiety, pain and stress6.
The trick is to find the music that works for you. Actively listen to it rather than just having it on in the background. It's a lovely thing to do if you need help improving your sleep quality7.
Knitting has been shown to have multiple benefits for the mind, never mind the woolly wonders that you might end up creating. Knitters are happier and are mentally more alert according to one large study8. Similar effects are had while colouring in (remember that fad?), any sorts of arts and crafts, model airplane building, jigsaw making or even Lego can be relaxing. Find something fun to occupy your hands and quieten your mind.
I have only mentioned a few relaxation methods that have proven effect. There are many more out there and with a small bit of effort you will find one you love. More importantly, one that you will stick to for a long-lasting strategy that really improves your well-being.
Other things that may help:
Herbal remedies can be really useful for mild anxiety and when dealing with chronic stress. AvenaCalm is made from the oat plant. It can be used to relieve emotional distress and can help with sleeping problems.
If you have a really hard time getting your head around relaxing for emotional reasons, for instance if you feel panicky being alone with your own thoughts, Jan de Vries Relaxing Essence may be the flower remedy for you. Flower remedies don't make any physical changes in the body but aim to work solely with the emotions. They are really handy for those on medications who can't use herbal medicines. Relaxation Essence can be used to dampen mental chatter. For me it's usually the same negative thought, on a loop, over and over. I like to imagine that flower essences are able to reset this endless cycle of negativity.
4-7-8 breathing. This is a great breathing technique to start with. Breathe in counting to 4. Hold your breath for 7. Then breathe out slowly counting to 8. It takes a little practice. It's a really easy way to take a few moments while you are sitting in traffic or waiting for the kettle to boil.
It is important to remember that while relaxation may help with depression and severe anxiety, sufferers may need more support. Don't go it alone if you are really struggling. Talk to a GP or medical professional or get in touch with one of the many good organisations out there that offer support and guidance.