In my work with people who are facing things like stress, anxiety, or trauma, I often talk about the importance of making time for relaxation and self-care. Relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and meditation are some of the buzzwords that encompass practices that involve slowing down the mind and body.
These practices can be extremely effective. They not only provide a sense of calm, they can also create positive effects on the nervous system. They may even lead to noted physiological improvements, such as slowed breathing and decreased heart rate and blood pressure. These techniques are some of the best ways to improve physical and mental health. Even better? They typically have no negative side effects.
I teach various forms of relaxation multiple times a week, to many of the people I work with in my office. I recently became aware of how I had personally strayed from practicing what I preached. When I was pregnant with my first child, I made a conscious effort to embrace meditation. I was fully aware that the fetus experiences everything the mom feels. I also believed that a calm mom created a healthy, calm baby. But several years (and two more babies) later, I’m finding I rarely make time to utilize the tools I so often teach to others.
The Challenges of Relaxation
While I do use various relaxation techniques at night if I’m having a hard time falling asleep or when I’m aware I feel excessively stressed, I’ve gotten away from using meditation as a regular practice. I fully admit it’s often difficult to find the time.
Our society and age of technology can make this even more challenging. I realized this last week as I was sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting to be called back for my appointment. I passed time aimlessly looking things up on my iPhone. I checked my text messages, then my emails. Checked my Instagram feed, then my Facebook feed. Went back to check my emails again. There was nothing new, so I checked my text messages again. I checked my Google analytics app just for the heck of it. Then I checked my email again. “Oh! Somebody on SoundCloud liked the guided meditation I uploaded.”
This made me pause. I had recorded a guided meditation for the people I worked with to use at home. I urged each of them to make mindfulness a part of their routine. “Find a few moments every day to pause and slow down your mind and body,” I had suggested. But here I was, during the one moment in my day that involved simply sitting in silence. What was I doing? Frantically going back and forth between apps in order to kill time.
I stopped and checked in with myself, mentally asking how I felt in that moment. I realized I was anxious. Not about the appointment, but anxious and annoyed that things weren’t moving fast enough. I wanted to get the appointment done and get on with my day. I wanted to tackle some of the things on my ever-growing to-do list. I couldn’t do that while waiting, but by staring at my phone I was wasting a valuable opportunity to pause and allow myself a “reset.”
I know that pausing and slowing down can help create a sense of calm. I also know that from a place of calm, I’m always better and more effective at managing stress and upcoming tasks. But I often get so swept up in the busyness of life that I forget to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.
When we don’t make a point to slow things down and make time for stillness and relaxation, the less effective we become at managing the stressors in our lives.
I wondered why it was so hard for me to just sit in silence for a few moments. Balancing family and work schedules leaves little time for sitting quietly. So why was I not embracing this rare opportunity to enjoy a period of time where I had nothing to do besides sit and wait? Why did I feel the need to keep checking my email and going back and forth between apps? I wasn’t expecting anything important. I had just gotten caught up in the fast pace of life and the pressure to constantly juggle everything on my plate. In doing so, I neglected the chance to just be still.
When our lives become so busy and chaotic, we often forget to slow down. Some people have a difficult time being alone with themselves. Either their thoughts are filled with negative, anxious, or self-deprecating self-talk they would rather avoid, or they have become so disconnected from their sense of identity that they aren’t sure how to handle idle time alone.
Neither of these are true for me. In fact, I relish time alone. Nonetheless, the more chaotic, busy, and full my life becomes, the more difficult remembering to slow down seems to be.
Making Time to Slow Down
When we don’t make a point to slow things down and make time for stillness and relaxation, the less effective we become at managing the stressors in our lives. This can sometimes pose problems. An important point I teach about relaxation techniques is how vital it is to practice these tools on a regular, ongoing basis. It’s important to make them a part of your daily routine and use them often instead of just calling on them during moments of chaos.
This is especially true when you are first learning to embrace mindfulness and meditation and incorporate them into your life. Relying on relaxation tools only during moments of stress may help you to better cope in the moment. But utilizing them on a regular basis will help you operate from a place that is more grounded and stable. This can allow you to mitigate some of the stress that might otherwise become overwhelming.
Try this simple exercise:
Get into a comfortable position and try to relax. Release as much tension from your body as possible. Take a few deep breaths in … and out. Imagine your body is like a big, stable, old oak tree. Imagine yourself being strong and steady, even amid strong winds and stormy weather. Close your eyes and visualize this as you continue to breathe in and out deeply.
Imagine roots at the base of your spine, traveling down through anything below you and deep into the earth. Visualize these roots planted firmly into the ground. Imagine that any negative emotions or stressors can travel out of you, through these roots, and back into the earth where they can be released and recycled.
After you’ve finished embracing this visualization, check in with yourself to see how you are feeling. Notice if you experience any shifts in your emotions or changes in sensations in your body. Hopefully this exercise helps you to establish a better sense of calm. If so, congratulate yourself for successfully using a mindfulness tool. Know you can use this simple meditation anywhere, at any time, in order to feel more stable and secure.
If you found the visualization difficult, keep practicing. There are books, CDs, websites, YouTube videos, and more out there to help you embrace the practice of meditation. If you find the idea of meditating uncomfortable, that’s okay. My original thoughts on meditation years ago were a bit cynical. I believed it sounded hokey, crazy, or foreign. I imagined elderly monks in faraway places sitting perfectly still, eyes closed, for hours on end, depriving themselves of the ability to scratch an itch, not even allowing themselves to eat. I thought meditation meant blanking out your brain and not allowing a single thought to pass though your mind. This, I found impossible.
I’ve since discovered meditation really just means slowing down, developing more awareness, and taking time to be more mindful and present. There are many different techniques and ways to do this. One book I like is Learn to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Self-Discovery and Fulfillment, which offers many techniques for practicing mindfulness. Find what works for you.
It doesn’t take hours, and it doesn’t need to be difficult. You just need to find a few short moments to regularly and consciously slow down, become more self-aware, and allow your mind to take a break from everything you are juggling. If you aren’t sure how to begin, I encourage you to reach out for help. A compassionate therapist or counselor can offer guidance and support as you explore meditation and mindfulness practices.
Fontana, D. (1999). Learn to meditate: A practical guide to self-discovery and fulfillment. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.