Many of us feel a constant pressure or prodding to be productive. As we sit down on the couch, we’re met with 50 reasons why we need to get back up. Fifty reasons, which include folding laundry, washing dishes, checking email, calling so-and-so about such-and-such, and so on.
We might feel guilty for trying to relax. Or maybe we feel like we’re missing out and need to constantly stay connected to our devices. Or maybe we’re worried about an upcoming presentation or project and our brain is being bombarded by a slew of “what-ifs.”
Either way, one thing is clear: We want to relax. But we can’t.
According to psychotherapist Ali Miller, MFT, our world is “fast-paced, competitive and doesn’t value rest or relaxation as much as productivity and consumption. Of course, it’s hard to relax.” But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It helps to have some tools — like the ones below.
Understand your tense part
Empathize with the part of you that’s having trouble relaxing, said Miller, who helps clients cultivate self-compassion. “We don’t want to make that part of ourselves bad or wrong, because then we’ll just be in an inner-conflict, which certainly isn’t relaxing.” Instead, you want to understand it. Once you understand it, you can collaborate and find a way that relaxes that part of you, too.
“It’s like a negotiation between two parties: What do you need from me in order to relax? How can we both get our needs met?”
So if your tense part fears that spending 30 minutes watching your favorite show will put you behind on everything, gently reassure it that after you relax, you’ll return to your tasks.
Take daily media breaks
Every day dedicate 20 to 30 minutes to going without your phone, TV, iPad or any other electronic device, said Liz Morrison, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in stress reduction. “Put your device in a place where you cannot see it or hear it so that it will not be distracting to you.” During this time, stretch your body or practice yoga or do anything that helps you reconnect with and care for yourself.
Plan a peaceful trip
“Separating yourself from a regular routine environment can promote relaxation,” Morrison said. Plus, a short trip gives you something to look forward to, which can help you feel relaxed even before you go, she said. Your trip might be visiting a botanical garden or discovering a quaint town or walking along the beach.
Many of us feel relaxed while being in nature. “[T]he pressure to achieve and ‘be somebody’ falls away when we see trees and squirrels and flowers simply being themselves,” Miller said. “We see that they are perfect as they are without any effort. And I believe we internalize that self-acceptance for a little while, and we stop striving temporarily.”
Miller suggested practicing this breathing technique from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook: Place your hand on your belly. As you breathe in, push your hand out, and count to four. Pause at the top of your inhale. Then exhale, as you count to four and your hand falls. At the end of your exhale, silently say, “10.” Do the same—until you count down to one.
Morrison suggested checking out the app “Stop, Breathe & Think,” which teaches mindfulness, relaxation and meditation skills.
Do what you love
Doing what you love helps you feel more relaxed because it brings you joy, Morrison said. For instance, you might spend time with your loved ones or ride your bike. You might try something you’ve always wanted to try, such as tai chi, or a cooking or a photography class.
Play the ABC Game
Morrison suggested this activity, which also is great for kids: Look for things in the room you’re currently in that start with the letter A. Then look for things that start with the letter B, then C, and so on. “The purpose is to help refocus your thoughts and get you to a calming place.”
Address relaxation on all levels
Miller recommended creating a list of activities for all occasions. She suggested asking ourselves these questions:
- What can I do regularly throughout the day to relax?
- What contributes to me being relaxed on a weekly basis?
- What are some bigger strategies that contribute to my relaxation?
- What techniques can I use when I’m particularly stressed, and which are more for maintenance?
You also might explore micro, macro and in-between strategies. Micro strategies don’t take much (if any) time, and they’re free and easy to access, Miller said. She shared these examples: “Be aware of the sensations of your feet on the floor and your fingers on the keys as you type; or set a mindfulness alarm to go off every 30 minutes to remind you to look away from the computer and notice how you’re feeling physically and emotionally.”
Macro strategies usually involve some planning, such as taking a vacation. In-between strategies might be getting a massage or taking a walk every Friday.
Both Morrison and Miller noted that different things work for different people. One person’s tension melts away in yoga class, while another person prefers to run. “Some people like doing breathing exercises, while other people get more tense when they focus on their breath,” Miller said.
The key is to figure out what works best for you. Then incorporate these different relaxation strategies into your day. Doing so is as vital to your health as brushing your teeth and getting enough sleep.
Woman hiking photo available from Shutterstock