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  • Simply Relaxing Might Not Be Enough to Combat Your Stress

    Relax. Take a load off. Unwind after a long day or week of work.

    relaxing with the TV

    We’re told that all we need to do is to relax more and we can undo the ravages of stress. I’ve said the same thing myself, and I stand by it. However, simply relaxing may not be enough.

    You see, there’s a difference between relaxing and relaxing enough to trigger the relaxation response in the body. Because everything is relative, we often judge how relaxed we are by the full-on stress response we feel for the vast majority of the day. The problem is this: Simply relaxing may not be enough to turn the stress response into the relaxation response.

    Relaxing is kicking back with your favorite beverage while watching your favorite TV show. It’s pulling out a juicy novel, curling up on the couch, and delving into another world for awhile. It’s taking a cooler full of your favorite picnic foods to the beach and hanging out all day. While these may be far more relaxing than anything you do at work, is it enough to trigger the relaxation response?

    The relaxation response occurs when:

    • Your breathing becomes slow and deep
    • Your heart rate slows
    • Your blood pressure decreases
    • Your muscles relax
    • You have calm, relaxed thoughts
    • Your pain levels decrease
    • Cortisol stops being released
    • Anti-inflammatory factors are released into the bloodstream

    You won’t be able to detect the last two changes, but you will be able to detect the rest of them, and that’s enough to let you know when the body and mind are transitioning from the sympathetic part of the nervous system (the part responsible for the fight or flight stress response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (the part responsible for the relaxation response).

    You can be sure you won’t achieve the relaxation response while watching TV if you’re paying your bills, making to-do lists, completing items on said to-do list, or checking your email during commercials. Basically, anytime you multitask during your relaxation time, you short circuit the relaxation system and stay in stress mode. Likewise for rushing, going against the flow, or any other means of stressing yourself out in the name of relaxation. I don’t need to tell you that stressing yourself out in an attempt to relax is counterproductive, do I?

    There are a few ways to ensure that you relax fully enough to engage the relaxation side of your nervous system:

    • When you do something, do just that thing (no multi-tasking)
    • Do a brain dump (write down everything on your mind) before you kick back
    • Go with the flow… of traffic, kids, partners, etc. It’s ok if you have a little less time relaxing if you haven’t increased your stress level in the process
    • Slow down… your pace, your breathing, your thoughts
    • Focus on the positive
    • Be fully in each moment

    So the next time you’re relaxing, take a moment to check in with yourself and see what you’re doing that might be helping and what might be hindering your ability to experience the relaxation response. Make changes as needed.

    If you know some people who need help fully relaxing, make sure to share this post with them.