February 10, 2010

Relaxation: Will Someone Please Put A Gun to My Head?

There are many components of healthy living: eating right, exercising, refraining from smoking, keeping up with medical appointments, and not doing dumb-ass things like driving 100 miles per hour or sprinting across the street in front of oncoming tanker trucks.

But there's another healthy habit that's easy to forget: stress management. Stress sucks, and chronic stress can seriously mess up your health--not to mention give you excess belly fat, destroy your sleep, and generally make you a crotchety, over-sensitive pain in the ass. Chronic stress can raise blood pressure, contribute to digestive problems, negatively affect your immune system, and do a whole bunch of other bad things I can't remember off the top of my head.

There are many different methods to fight the effects of stress. These include exercise (which you're already doing, right?), psychiatric medications, psychotherapy, biofeedback, cognitive-behavioral self-help programs, massage, and bonking random strangers on the head with foam baseball bats. (Well, that last one isn't commonly recommended but it sure sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?).

But one of the simplest things you can do is... relax! Studies have shown taking a few minutes to meditate or do other forms of relaxation can have tremendous health benefits. There are lots of ways to approach it, like: mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, focusing on breath, self-hypnosis, yoga, chanting, drumming, singing, prayer, and guided visualization. Any activity that helps you focus your attention, relax your muscles, slow and deepen your breathing, and activate your parasympathetic nervous system will do the trick.

So am I the only one who knows that relaxation exercises are good for me, yet can not seem to make myself do them?

I bet I'm not. Seems like lots of people who will spend hours training for a marathon or cooking a nutritious meals somehow can't imagine taking 20 precious minutes out of the day to repeat a mantra, visualize a pleasant walk by the seashore, or focus on their breathing. And no amount of research about the awesome physical and mental benefits this brings seems to change this resistance.

Here's my theory: practicing intentional, conscious, therapeutic relaxation does not feel miserable enough to count in our minds as a chore or an achievement. It just feels wrong to many people to take half an hour, or even 2-3 minutes, out of a busy day to go off and be quiet unless all the other more unpleasant chores have been taken care of first. And how often are all your unpleasant chores ever finished?

Yet for most people, meditation or relaxation exercises are not "fun" enough to count as entertainment, especially not at first. In a battle for precious spare leisure time, a favorite tv show or new novel by your favorite author is going to seem a more compelling choice than sitting cross-legged and chanting "om."

Part of the reason I'm writing this post is that I've decided that it's about goddamn time I started doing some of this relaxation stuff myself again. I already follow pretty much every other healthy lifestyle recommendation, and being naturally wired as a neurotic stress-bucket, this one I really should remember to take seriously.

Years ago I dabbled in meditation, self-hypnosis, and guided visualization, etc. (As a psychotherapist, I even used to hypnotize people too; it's pretty cool.) But then I got too lazy and stopped making time for it.

Here are some things I learned:

(1) The kind of meditation that is most frequently suggested, where you repeat a mantra over and over? It works great for lots of people, but I suck at it, even with lots of practice. Everyone is different, yet many authorities still push mantra meditation as "the" kind of meditation. Phooey to that.

(2) The most helpful resource I found to get started was buying a book with all kinds of relaxation, visualization, and meditation examples. (Of course I can't find the book anymore or remember the title. But there are plenty out there.) Another thing I found helpful was to spring for a few guided meditation or visualization cd's. (There are also free or cheap mp3's and podcasts on the web; just google!).

(3) Once you learn to relax deeply, with practice you can cue yourself to get to at least a semi-relaxed state much more quickly than you did before. But I've also discovered that if you stop practicing, you can lose this ability again.

(4) The more time you spend focusing your conscious attention, the more you start to notice cool stuff around you that you didn't notice before.

(5) Deep trance states can be very pleasurable! However, it was hard for me to get really deep without a live hypnotist (expensive) or a fairly new guided imagery cd that I hadn't heard dozens of times. But I never had much luck getting myself to do anything differently by listening to helpful suggestions under hypnosis. My unconscious mind is apparently just as resistant to gentle nagging as my conscious mind is. But hypnosis still did a great job of getting me relaxed in the moment, even if it didn't miraculously get rid of any bad habits or change me from a slacker to a go-getter.

(6) As an alternative to visualizations, I found that focusing awareness on things that were beautiful or pleasurable in my environment worked much better for me than repeating words or paying attention to my breath. Looking at colors in the garden, watching a fire in the fireplace, walking on a scenic trail, or eating a meal slowly and focusing on all the sights, smells, and sensations involved--these I found more engrossing and they all "count" as meditating. The important thing is to just keep patiently returning your attention back from wandering thoughts to the thing you've decided to focus on. (Without getting all impatient and bitchy with yourself. If you're normal, your mind will wander a lot. Don't worry about it.)

Now here's where a more conscientious blogger would carefully explain all the many relaxation/ meditation options and tell you how to get started. Um, sorry! I ain't that blogger (at least not anymore).

But here are a few links and resources:

Mayo Clinic has a basic article about meditation and its health benefits, as does Web MD.

There are some basics of Buddhist meditation at How To Meditate, including instructional videos.

Also, Rejuvenation Lounge discusses walking meditation, and there are three quick meditation techniques for busy folks over at Quips and Tips for Spiritual Seekers.

Oh, and our pal POD at Thufferin' Thuccotash shares some of her experiences with meditation, and over at Spirited Women there's a discussion of the benefits of using meditation and other stress-management exercises with kids and teens.

What about you folks: do you practice meditation, visualization or other relaxation techniques?


  1. I'm pretty terrible at relaxation/meditation. I have a hard time shutting my brain off and I'll just keep thinking about all the things I SHOULD be doing. (even though I SHOULD be relaxing)

    One thing that I found helps me are tibetan singing bowl recordings. For some reason it's easy to get lost in the resonating tones.

    Good luck!

  2. There are so many health benefits associated with relaxation/meditation/breathing exercises, yet I never seem to get around to doing them. I find quiet mindful breathing the easiest.

  3. While I think it would be GREAT to be able to call upon some kind of calming ability like you say in #3, I doubt I'll get there.

    Spending me-on-me time makes me twitchy. Can I bring a book? ;-)

  4. Thanks for that post and tips. I get stressed out when I try to relax because I cannot relax. How crazy is that?

  5. Seems to me one of the problems with all these techniques is that if you feel you have to follow them exactly, they bring on their own stress. At least that's how it feels to me. I once knew a woman who tried meditation - and was always in trouble 'cause it made her fall aslepp. Somehow, she was supposed to tread that fine line between utter peace and snoring.

    Well. Doesn't work for me, either. But I do love to sit in a hot bath & relax, and I don't believe that bringing a book along is cheating. It won't be a book that requires a lot of thought. On a tough day, it'll probably be a light book that I've already read. I find that my free-form daydreams are soon flowing and the book is forgotten (but with a little luck, not dropped in the water). I also find that familiar & loved music in the background can free my mind from its stress issues. I guess for me, the familiar book or music acts sort of as the mantras might. They loosen things up & help me let go of the stresss of the moment.

  6. Relaxation seems to be one of my innate talents.

    Watching...snow...fall. Not.worrying.about.income.
    comes easily to me.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    "slusl": they misspelled it, but "slush, frozen" is what's keeping me from work

  7. Mantras and visualization don't tend to work for me.

    Exercising helps tremendously.

    I learned to swim as an adult and I wasn't able to float until I took everyone's advice to, well, relax. I concentrated on being relaxed and voilĂ .

    I have been to an acupuncturist which was extremely relaxing and, every now and then, I'll get a massage which is all kinds of relaxing.

    Good luck with the relaxing thing...

  8. I'm one big ball of stress most of the time, but I'm horrible at relaxing. I just can't seem to master the whole "clear your mind" thing. I just end up fixating on what's stressing me out. The best I can do: Read a book and get lost in that world.

  9. Yup.. I'm one of those that has to be doing something while relaxing. It's either reading, watching TV or I might as well be sleeping. This walking meditation sounds right for me. I suppose I can't take photos when I do it though.. sigh! Might not work after all. ;)

  10. Yup...I make sure to not let anyone down at the expense of myself.
    Then I wig out because I have too much to do.

    Like now.

    Heh. heh...

  11. I have to say that meditation has changed my life.
    That said I would imagine in the realm of "real" meditators Ive not yet started to meditate.
    (hmm. does that make sense? it does to me.)

    I begin each day with 5 minutes (up from one minute to start) of meditation and it really sets me up well for the craziness that can sometimes ensue after those 5 minutes are done.

    more than that?
    group meditation?

    I dont think the best mantra in the WORLD could wrestle my monkey mind into submission.

  12. I have a terrible time trying to relax as well, but Ive been trying very hard lately to do take time out of my day to relax. It's definitely difficult at first, but it does get easier. I have found, though, that it's hard to balance everything in life - eating healthy, working out, doing chores, working, and, finally relaxing - and it seems that in order to relax, something else is overlooked.

  13. Where do I sign up to get Crabby to hypnotize me? 'Cuz that sounds like a whole 'nother side of fun!

    I insist on at least 15 minutes of reading each night before bed. I've found it gives my brain the cue to stop.thinking. Then after I put the book down I reflect on those things that make my life wonderful. After that, a quick relaxation trick I learned in college and I'm off to sleep. But if I try to skip the reading? So much harder to purge the days thoughts/to-dos from my brain. And I don't sleep as well.

  14. I practice any and all relaxation techniques while I am trying to fall asleep.
    Although I can completely relax on cue (thank you childbirth education) I can't stay that way very long.
    I guess I prefer to be high strung.

  15. While I do make time for prayer, I often don't find it very relaxing, as much of my praying involves yelling at God on behalf of friends and relatives.

    Then I have a hard time justifying more time being spent in just sitting and relaxing.

  16. I am not a meditation type person but I do what I call veg out. Whether it be watching some TV for laughs or sitting & having a cup of coffee & reading a mag or just sitting & people watching. I know that is not the true sense of the word but for now, it helps me.

  17. I have just been posting about how I am having difficulties discovering ways to recharge my batteries. Maybe I will give this a try.

  18. I practice Tai Chi. It's a wonderful form of relaxation, chi circulation and meditation. I have to admit though, when something like work or relationships get stressful, the Tai Chi doesn't really do anything for me so I go to something else. The heavy bag :-)

    Rahim Samuel
    Publisher, Wellnessbymanymeans.com

  19. At the end of my workouts, I have been spending some time in the sauna. The lights are dim, it is warm, and I just plug my ipod in and chill. I find it to be a great escape after doing Angry Elliptical.


  20. TV is not relaxation. It's boredom porn. (I ought to know). I read someone's comment about TV. tsk.

    I am still struggling daily with meditation and mindfulness (awareness) though I do not usually refer to these things as a struggle. I have heard that even monks who meditate will allow themselves to fall asleep if that has to happen. They do not judge themselves. Pema has some great CDs on meditation. I used to think I was not the meditation type but certain things happened in my life that have caused me to look deeper in that direction because all of the other methods for gathering sanity have not worked for me.

  21. "So am I the only one who knows that relaxation exercises are good for me, yet can not seem to make myself do them?"


    (No. No, you are not the only one ;)).

    Everyone tells me to meditate etc. For some reason, it just isn't that easy to get myself to do it! But I'm CERTAIN that stress is related to my insomnia issues, so I should really work on the relaxation stuff.

  22. for real, are we the same person? I spend all day telling people how to be healthy and well, and I am waylaid by sinus infections because I won't let myself rest long enough to stay well. Thanks for the resources and tips!

  23. How funny you should post this on the week I started listening to a meditation podcast before bed!

    I've always been a terrible sleeper and am prone to nightmares. But earlier this week I downloaded this podcast http://www.themeditationpodcast.com/episodes.html?ep=6

    and listened to it before bed. Woke up feeling much more refreshed than usual. Happened the second night too!

    Then, as a test (and, let's be honest, because I couldn't be bothered getting up to get my ipod), I didn't listen to it last night. And my sleep = not so good.

    We'll see how long the effects keep working - I might get used to the same podcast and lose the benefits - but so far, thumbs up from me.

  24. Try beating a hand drum to get into a trance state, it works great! Just a steady beat does the trick. Annoys family and neighbors, though :D

    I can do basic meditation and just sit, be quiet, and relax. Can't say I've had a mystical experience except by falling into a trance. But that's always taken musical stimulation. Never been able to get there through just sitting and being quiet, or repeating a mantra.

  25. Seriously? The same way. I couldn't get myself to do yoga either until I found it had a direct correlation between doing it and being injury-free for running. So now I do it begrudgingly. Honestly, I zen out with TV. I know it not great, but I enjoy someone telling me a story, it helps me shut off my brain and just be entertained.

  26. I find it really hard to meditate or do relaxation techniques. I get all fidgety and stuff. But I have successfully done it a couple of times.... Definitely wonderful to just have time to sit back and relax and let my mind go blank.

  27. Beautiful piece! I often talk to people about the role of stress and weight gain due to increased levels of Cortisol, though usually it gets overlooked on a lot of fitness blogs, really good to see you have included it here! Plus that you have recommended meditation and all its holistic benefits as a way to improve health and achieve a good healthy body.

    In terms of meditation types to help people, it is great that you mention about books, for many using guided meditations is far easier. The contrast being between the stress of remembering what to do when, worrying about how long is enough etc, when learning from a book. Whereas with guided mp3 tracks it is possible to just let the relaxation flow from the first moment, as all a person needs to do is listen and follow.

    For those who are looking for an easy to access set of resources in terms of guided meditation and relaxation mp3 check out meditationmp3.net, where perhaps the most popular, simplest and easiest to relax with track (according to most people) is the Vipassana Meditation. It holds the roots of Mindfulness meditation and is a really gentle and serene way to meditate, great for lowering Stress and Cortisol levels that will have you on the way to a healthy body fast.

    Thanks again for the great post above!


    Stephen Frost


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