“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” - Ancient Chinese proverb
Between exam stress, work anxiety and money problems, it often seems like life is one long, hectic chain of events. But no matter how busy you are, it’s essential for your mental health and well-being that you make time to relax.
It’s easy to forget to make time for yourself when things get stressful. Sometimes you’re just so pre-occupied with getting through each day that a long time can go by before you remember to do anything relaxing.
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Many ways of relaxing, like walking or sitting quietly, are very simple and easy to do. Others, like yoga or meditation, require some training and discipline. Depending on the type of person you are, you’ll find different activities relaxing, from playing football to reading a book. Put aside some time in the day to try out some of the following suggestions:
- go for a walk
- take time to notice your surroundings
- listen to your favourite music
- go fishing
- sit quietly in a park and look at the trees
- play your favourite sport
- take a bath – lie back, shut out everything else and relax
- go to a movie or watch a video
- visit a friend
- go for a swim
- do a puzzle
- read a book
- practice yoga or meditation
Learning to breathe
It’s something we do every minute, but you’d be surprised how many of us aren’t doing it right. When you’re anxious, your breathing can be quick and shallow, which reduces the amount of oxygen going to your organs. Learning how to breathe efficiently can help reduce some of the physiological symptoms of anxiety.
Try this at home
To become aware of your breathing, place one hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach. Take a breath and let your stomach swell forwards as you breathe in, and fall back gently as you breathe out. Try to get a steady rhythm going by taking the same depth of breath each time. Your hand on your chest should be almost completely still.
When you feel comfortable with this technique, try to slow your breathing rate down by taking a short pause after you‘ve exhaled and before you breathe in again. Initially, it can feel as though you’re not getting enough air in, but with regular practice this slower rate will soon start to feel comfortable.
It can help to imagine you’re blowing up a big balloon in your stomach when you breathe in, that will deflate when you breathe out. This exercise helps you to breathe more oxygen into your stomach rather than restricting the amount of oxygen by breathing into your chest.
Meditation is the practice of consciously emptying your mind of thoughts in order to achieve a state of pure relaxation. By finding a quiet corner somewhere for ten or fifteen minutes of meditation every day, experts believe we can improve our overall health and wellbeing.
One of the main principles behind meditation is that by removing negative and wandering thoughts and fantasies from our minds, we can calm ourselves and achieve a deep sense of peace.
Any negative thoughts like exam stress, problems with parents or relationship troubles contribute to the ‘pollution’ of our minds, say the experts. Blocking them out for a while allows our minds to focus on deeper, more relaxing thoughts.
It can be surprisingly difficult to sit still for ten minutes and empty our minds – your mind can often seem determined to wander back towards daily concerns, like what to cook for dinner or whether to go out that night. You may even find yourself drifting off to sleep in you’ve had a busy day. Practising meditation techniques regularly will train your mind into staying focused for longer.
Try concentrating on repeated actions like breathing and humming – this will help you to enter a more relaxed state of consciousness. You could also try focusing on a certain object or thought, or while keeping your eyes open, focus on a single sight in the room.
One useful meditation exercise would be to name every part of your body and focus your consciousness on that part. While doing this you should be aware of any tension on any part of your body and trying to imagine this tension releasing. See Mindfulness and alternativehealth.ie for more tips on how to meditate.
Take up a weekly exercise class or join a sports team. It might not seem relaxing but by using up adrenalin and other hormones you can reduce stress and relax your muscles. Yoga and Tai Chi are particularly relaxing because they focus on breathing techniques and centring the mind but doing any form of exercise will help you relax.
Go for a relaxing massage if you feel tense and under strain. If your budget doesn’t stretch to a massage parlour, ask a friend to work on your muscles instead. If they haven’t been trained, ask them not to be too rough on the sensitive muscles of your back or neck.
Or simply run a hot bath with some scented oils to release your tension. Playing some soothing music and lighting candles should help you unwind.
Visualising calming images can help release stress and help you relax. Emptying your mind of all its cares and focusing on one mental image for a period of time allows your inner train of thought to finally switch off. Try this visualisation exercise out (taken from Counselling Care Dublin):
Sit or lie in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Visualise your thoughts as a mass of bubbles. Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you do, imagine all those thought bubbles being blown away. You should already begin to feel more relaxed.
If there’s a specific thought or issue you can’t stop thinking about, imagine a large bubble blowing up from your head. Visualise a word written across the bubble that represents this issue. Then imagine taking a big needle, and bursting the bubble. See the word melt away in the mist created by the bubble bursting. Imagine yourself saying “I won’t waste any more energy thinking about this now, I can’t solve this today. I’m putting it aside and allowing myself to relax”.
Now pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in through your nose in a long, steady breath. Feel your ribcage expanding out on either side, and lifting up – your lungs are two balloons that you are filling with fresh, clean air. Breathe out slowly and evenly through your mouth, feeling your ribcage slowly drop.
Stay focused on your breathing. If your mind wanders, use the bubble bursting visualisation and then bring your attention back to your breath. Stay with this exercise for as long as is comfortable to you. When you’re confident and able to induce relaxation easily, you can use it anywhere, whenever you need it.
Try a breathing exercise
Measuring your pulse
To do this you need a watch, a clock or your mobile phone with a stopwatch function. Turn the palm side of your hand facing up. Place your index and middle fingers of your opposite hand on your wrist, approximately two fingers below the base of your hand. Press your fingers down in the groove between your middle tendons and your outside bone. You should feel your pulse throbbing.
Count the number of beats for 10 seconds, then multiply this number by 6. This will give you your heart rate per minute. Example: if you count 12 beats in 10 seconds, multiply
12 x 6 = 72. Your pulse is 72 beats per minute. A normal resting pulse rate (that is when you are sitting or lying still) is between 60 and 90 beats per minute.
- Put your hands on your stomach
- Breath in and then out, counting how long it takes each way.
- On the next breath, breath in for five seconds and out for five seconds. Do this for 10 breaths, making a conscious decision to try and relax as much as possible.
- For 10 more breaths, breath in for seven seconds and out for seven seconds.
- Measure your pulse rate. It should be lower, as the exercise has started bringing your breathing and your heart rate to its optimal level.
When you notice you’re stressed, try breathing in for five seconds and out for five seconds for just three breaths.
At the end of each day, no matter how stressed you feel, do the breathing exercises. Like any kind of skill, practice makes perfect. Doing the slow breathing when you’re not stressed will mean you’re primed for those pressure situations.