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Learning to Relax: Mind, Body and Soul

Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering. ~Pooh's Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne

Imagine this: you're stretched out on a soft blanket, the sand warm all around you. As you lie there, you feel the sun warming your face and listen to the soft hissing sounds of the surf, lapping the sand near your feet. An occasional seagull call sounds above the waves. You can smell the salt air on the wind that gently blows through your hair...

If you were really able to imagine this scene, using all of your senses, you are likely feeling more relaxed now, both physically and mentally, than you were before you began. Given all the stressors that life brings- academic, personal, familial- how can you achieve this kind of relaxed state and maintain some part of it in your day to day life? In this article I will outline some strategies for relaxation and talk about some ways to incorporate these into your life on a regular basis, regardless of any external stressors.

It is self-evident that when we are relaxed we feel good, but what many people don't realize is that this subjective sense of feeling good may actually be accompanied by physical health benefits. According to researchers like Herbert Benson, regular relaxation (combined with other self-care practices) can help prevent or control all kinds of health problems including: high blood pressure, eczema, acne, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches, depression, anxiety, herpes, endometriosis, insomnia, and many, many other conditions. And yet, despite these clear benefits and the good feeling elicited by relaxing, there are many people who feel they don't have the time or ability to incorporate regular relaxation practices into their lives. Over and over again I hear people say that their lives are too hectic, too stressful, for them to relax. My response is that these are the times that you need relaxation the most!

We all have lives that are, at least sometimes, busy and stressful. But there are things that you can do, some of which take only a few minutes, to bring a sense of relaxation even in the midst of stress.

One strategy for promoting relaxation is to use deep breathing exercises. These are really easy and very effective. All you need to do is take a long, slow, deep breath in through your nose, making sure you fill your lungs completely. As you inhale, allow your belly to push outward, making it as full as you can. Once you've inhaled completely, then you will exhale completely--again, through your nose with a long, slow breath. As you exhale, pull your belly in to help push out all the air in your lungs. (It can help to close your eyes while you're doing this as a way to minimize distraction and help you really focus on your breath. ) That's it! Breathing in this manner for only 2-3 minutes a day will dramatically reduce stress and help you relax both physically and mentally. The more you practice this, the easier it will become and the more quickly you will feel the benefits. Because this is inconspicuous and quick, it is also something that you can do anywhere, anytime: in class, in the mall, outside, in your room, in bed while trying to go to sleep, etc.

Another way to help you relax is to do some form of meditation. Often when I mention meditation, people quickly respond "I can't do that". But there are some easy ways to get into a meditative state that don't require you sit in the lotus position and empty your mind of all thought. For example, there are guided meditation websites you can use in which a pretty image will come on your computer screen and a voice will talk your through a relaxation exercise. All you have to do is lie on your bed and listen!

Some of the websites that offer this are: http://www.audiodharma.org/talks-guidedmeditation.html and http://www.learningmeditation.com/room.htm. A second easy way to get into a meditative state is to engage in an activity that is somewhat repetitive and that doesn't require a lot of thought. Examples of such activities include: running, sewing, walking, fishing, drawing, etc. Most of us have had the experience of being so absorbed in something that time passes without our even realizing it. Usually this happens when we're engaged in an activity like the ones I've mentioned above where we get into what's called a "flow state". This is a kind of meditation! Some other easy relaxation strategies include: lying down listening to music, imagining a scene in which you were really relaxed (maybe on vacation) in as much detail as you can, doing yoga, stretching, laughing, etc. Part of this process will be trial and error in that you'll have to try a few things before you find what works best for you. The key is to get really good at noticing when you're stressed, trying one of these interventions, and then noticing what it feels like to be relaxed. Once you've really tuned in to what your body/mind feels like when relaxed, you'll be more able to recapture this state again. It's within you, so you can have it any time you want!

Part of learning to relax involves making relaxation a priority. This might sound odd, but for many people getting things done is more of a priority than relaxing. It certainly is important to attend to daily responsibilities, but what I'm suggesting is that there are ways to get things done while maintaining a relaxed awareness rather than an internal state of stress. If you can practice some form of relaxation exercise (like the ones I've described above) every day, you will likely notice that you have increased energy and focus to get things done in other realms of your life. When you decrease your stress level, you're actually more productive.