The Mental Benefits of Relaxation

· March 5, 2017

Some days you feel so fed up, all you want to do is go home and read a good book, take a bubble bath, or get a drink with friends. You do this with the goal of relaxing and disconnecting. When you’re more calm, you release yourself from your worries and start to feel better, right?

In today’s society, so full of obligations and things to do, it is necessary to take some time to relax. It’s highly beneficial to disconnect in the ways we mentioned above, but what if you got to truly relax no matter where you were? The situations mentioned above are more like a distraction than a method of relaxation.

“Sometimes, the most productive thing you can do is relax.”

-Mark Black-

What is relaxation?

First we have to clarify what we said at the beginning…Taking a walk, being with loved ones, watching a movie, doing a crossword puzzle – none of these are methods of relaxation. What they generally do is help us disconnect from our problems and preoccupations.

This is because they help us focus our attention on something else and distract us from whatever is producing anxiety, but they don’t relax us. When we do these activities, we remain active to a certain degree, while the goal of relaxation is to deactivate ourselves physiologically, or in other words, for the body to enter into a state of rest.

As Herbert Benson indicated, relaxation is a physical state of deep rest that produces changes in one’s emotional and physiological response to stress, as opposed to the fight or flight response. This means that it serves to decrease the activation produced by states like stress and anxiety. To achieve relaxation, bodily activation must be controlled.

palm trees against sky

Why does relaxation help with the regulation of emotions?

Emotions are the body’s response to changes in the environment in order to adapt better to them. Emotions manifest through three systems: 

  • Physiological: this refers to the bodily sensations produced by emotions, including a change in heart rate, sweating, heavy breathing, etc.
  • Subjective: this includes thoughts and everything that goes through the mind when an emotion surfaces.
  • Motor: this includes facial expressions and bodily movements, or in other words, the behaviors that go along with emotions.

These systems are complementary to each other. That is, changes in one will produce changes in another, which regulates the emotion. The deactivation of the physiological system would therefore bring about the deactivation of both the motor and the subjective systems.

“The part can never be well unless the whole is well.”

-Plato-

In general, an increase in the body’s level of activation is a useful response in terms of confronting external demands. It helps us to overcome highly demanding situations. But when this level of activation occurs under conditions where there is no external demand, or when it occurs too intensely, for too long, or too repeatedly, it can have harmful effects on one’s health.

In contrast, relaxation helps to manage anxiety. It has also been shown to treat insomnia, sexual dysfunction, chronic pain, tics, etc. It’s a very important resource that helps control daily stress, prevent illnesses, and improve quality of life. For this to occur, it’s necessary to recognize the demands of the situation, as well as the cognitive (thoughts) and behavioral aspects that produce activation.

Reducing bodily activation has been shown to benefit the subjective system. It increases feelings of calm, tranquility, peace, and well-being. It can help you reorient your attention, have better self-control, and recognize the bodily sensations associated with different emotions. As a result, you’d be able to regulate your emotions better and see a decrease in symptoms of anxiety.

What can be done to make relaxation more effective?

You might be thinking, okay, you’ve convinced me of the benefits of relaxation, but for me it’s really hard to relax, what should I do? First of all, don’t lose hope! Has there ever been anyone who could run 20 miles without training first? Of course not. It’s the same with relaxation.

It’s necessary to practice, practice, practice every day. This is the most determining factor regarding the efficacy of relaxation, but it’s not the only one. There are more things to keep in mind. The fact is that it isn’t feasible to keep your mind completely blank, so you have to concentrate your attention on a constant stimulus, like your breathing.

person lying on grass

It’s also necessary to let yourself get carried away without thinking too much about how it’s happening. It’s very important, especially when you’re just starting to train yourself to relax, to find the right time and place to practice. Avoid distractions and interruptions, and get into a comfortable position.

The goal of relaxation is to use it in anxiety-producing situations. For example, if you notice that you’re feeling nervous at work, the idea is to be able to deactivate yourself and then continue on with another activity. The goal of relaxation is not to fall asleep, but to rest and deactivate so that you can complete another task.

“Your calm mind is the ultimate weapon against your challenges. So relax.”

-Bryan McGill-

To be able to generalize your relaxation training, it must be done progressively. First, start training in a calm and silent environment. Once you have that down, you should start using relaxation in situations that always make you nervous. Start with the ones that cause only a little anxiety and then increase the level.

As you can see, relaxation is an ability that you can acquire and improve. Once you’ve generalized it, you’ll be able to use it in situations that make you feel distressed or anxious. That way, you’ll have a resource that will bring you peace and help you face unpleasant situations that you would otherwise avoid. So, start practicing!

Images courtesy of Ryan McGuire.

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