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?

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