Ask the average person to name their favourite forms of relaxation and the responses range from lying on the couch to watch a movie, catching up on sleep or stretching out by the pool with a good book.
Of course, these activities will leave you feeling more rested, but have they really relaxed you? The answer is “no”—at least not effectively. That’s because relaxation should be both muscular and mental. The kind of deep relaxation recommended by physicians is essential for your body to recover from the damaging effects of stress—and let’s face it: our modern lives are increasingly stressful.
Relaxation is a mentally active process that leaves your body and your mind focused, calm, refreshed and, of course, relaxed.
Did you know your health is at risk if you don’t relax? Here’s what happens when you’re stressed:
Your body releases stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin). If this is a rare event, it is not harmful at all. But think of a typical day when you’re constantly on the go and juggling competing priorities. How much of the time do you spend being “stressed out” or “wired”? Now, think of your poor body pumping stress hormones and nervous energy into tissues and organs, overworking them and wearing you down.
Many of the common ailments that affect our quality of life, such as constant headaches, digestive problems, sleep difficulties and muscle aches, can be linked to this constant state of heightened stress.
Our bodies are simply not designed to function in a permanent state of ‘fight or flight’.
The American Diabetes Association warns that long-term stress can cause high blood glucose levels, which in turn put you at risk of heart and kidney disease. And scientific evidence shows that too much adrenalin and cortisol can also have a harmful impact on your brain.
That’s why you need to make time in your schedule to unwind, do nothing and yes—simply relax.
The physiological changes that occur during relaxation are just the opposite to what happens when we are stressed. A comparison between stress and relaxation measured by EEG shows that our heart rate, muscle tone, blood pressure, sweating and hormone secretion increase during stress and decrease during relaxation.
Next time you’re clenching your teeth in traffic or slamming your office door, try some of the relaxation tips listed later in this article. Relaxing will help your body release chemicals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain. It will leave you in a state of calm and mental alertness that will ease the load on your nervous system.
What happens when you relax?
- Your heart rate slows down
- Your breathing becomes slower and deeper
- Your blood pressure drops or stabilises
- Your muscles relax
How can relaxation benefit your health?
- Reduces your stress levels
- Boosts your immune system
- Has an immediate effect on your energy levels and productivity
It makes sense to take relaxation seriously, doesn’t it? The Mental Health Society of America has cited relaxation as an important aspect of self-care. It’s actually essential for your wellbeing, both physical and mental.
How to Relax
Now that you understand how important relaxation is to your health, you’ll find there are many techniques to help you relax.
Many herbal supplements and medical relaxing aids are available over the counter. These can induce a calming effect and are said to help us cope with stress. But as with any medicine, long term use may lead to dependence or side effects. Check with your doctor before taking any new supplements.
Likewise, there is no shortage of therapies and treatments that promote relaxation. These range from spa treatments and massages or weekend retreats. Choose one that appeals to your unique preferences.
There are plenty of techniques you can try without even leaving home. Some are more intense than others. Yogic relaxation for instance is one of the more focused forms of rest.
In the long term, it’s important to find a relaxation technique that you can make a part of your daily life, rather than something that will become too pricey or difficult to incorporate into your routine.
If you only have 5 minutes or less, here are our top 5 tips for quick relaxation:
- Practice breathing exercises. Inhale slowly and deeply. Then exhale slowly.
- Listen to soothing music.
- Do mental exercises such as visualisations. Envision yourself in a peaceful, calm place.
- Meditate. Simply close your eyes and clear your mind of mental clutter. Focus on a positive mantra, or the flow of your breathing.
- Go for a walk, somewhere quiet or not busy. It will help to clear your mind.
Relaxation takes practice. Make time to relax as often as you can. Don’t wait for your next vacation or the odd weekend. Slow down and give yourself time to relax and rest deeply—your body and soul will thank you.