September 23, 2014 • By Lynn Somerstein, PhD, E-RYT, Object Relations Topic Expert Contributor
Americans are famous for being a hard-working bunch, taking the fewest paid vacation days off. I, for one, spent the summer studying advanced yoga therapy techniques on weekends, and working during the week, especially during the months of June and August. But I made sure to take some time off at the beginning and again at the end of the season so I could relax a bit, and I’m glad I did. Studying ways to help people relax is hard work, and it can be pretty stressful!
What did I learn at yoga school? I studied what happens to your body when it is subjected to relentless stress, and the importance of learning how to relax and let go. The stress response works great if you’re running away from a hungry tiger, but prolonged stress is bad for you because it weakens the body and the brain.
This is why:
- Your adrenal glands pump adrenaline, which raises your heart rate, your blood pressure, and increases the amount of sugar in your blood. Your adrenal cortex sends out cortisol, part of the stress response. This helps you run fast when you’re escaping the tiger, but when it becomes habitual and there aren’t any tigers to run away from, it is destructive.
- Stress kills brain cells; a calm environment permits their growth. It is not true that brain cells stop growing when you’re an adult, they just grow more slowly. So help them out and give them a nice place to live.
- Stress is associated with depression and anxiety. No fun.
- Your immune system doesn’t work as well as it should. Ah-choo!
- The right amount of stress is beneficial, but too much is deadly.
That’s why relaxation is as important as eating well and getting enough exercise and should be part of your regular health routine. It’s a way to take care of yourself and show yourself some love. So if it’s not a part of your usual day, you might want to think about adding it to your program. Don’t have much time? I bet you can find five or 10 minutes to call your own if you look hard.
Maybe your family is demanding. Make some demands of your own in return. You need a break just as much as anyone needs anything.
Working hard for a tyrannical boss? Find a way to make your work environment more pleasant. Look around and see if there’s some small thing you can do to make things better for you—adding a foot rest, for example, if your seat is too high for you, or wearing really comfortable shoes if you spend a lot of time on your feet.
One powerful relaxation technique is restorative yoga. Like all yoga, the sequence is based on bending forward, backward, sideways, and twisting. The difference is that these poses are held for a long time—five or even 10 minutes. You place yourself in a pose, child’s pose, for example, but your body is supported by bolsters so that you are in complete and absolute comfort.
I invite you to try the restorative version of child’s pose. Start child pose the usual way, but with the short end of a bolster in front of you, and then fold over it lengthwise so your body is supported by the bolster. There are many such adaptations of yoga poses you may already know. You can get DVDs that will show you how, but I think if you are able, it’s best to visit a class or two and learn directly from a teacher.
Finally, if you absolutely can’t stop the worried, anxious chatter in your brain and you’re always wired, consider seeing a therapist for some help.
Below are some of my favorite ways to relax. Like everyone, I need time out for myself, even if it’s only a few minutes. I don’t always feel like I have to respond immediately to help other people. I need to take care of myself first, and you do, too.
- Take warm, relaxing baths.
- Go for a walk in the park.
- Water and admire your plants.
- Fill the room with a lovely scent.
- Take a yoga class, or give yourself one.
- Listen to music.
- Have a nice visit with someone.
- Watch television.
- Go swimming.
- Give yourself enough time to do things, so you’re not always rushing.
- Laugh. This is very important. Among other things, laughter opens up the airways and pumps fresh air into your lungs. Also, it’s fun.
- Pet the cat, dog, or other pets.
I bet you have many other favorite ways to relax, things you enjoy doing. The secret is to remember to do them. Helping others helps with your stress, by the way, so why not post your favorite ways to relax and give us more ideas? (If you feel like it, that is!)