Do you recall the phrase: “Slow down, you’ll live longer”? The saying may be an old one, but now modern science is presenting evidence-based research that strongly supports this axiom.
By now, most of us have heard about how much our personal health is related to the amount of stress we carry. And, we’ve been told often that one of the best ways to lessen stress is to make more time to relax...to slow down! For most of us who lead active lives, this advice seems easier said than done.
One of the biggest challenges--even when we seem to find opportunities to relax-- is that our minds often continue racing and planning and worrying. All this mental “spinning” keeps us tense even when our external environment is calm and peaceful. Our thoughts seem to accompany us no matter what we’re doing--or not doing. So how do we relax, especially when we take our mind with us no matter where we go?
It’s worth considering how we go about trying to relax. Watching television, having a glass of wine, or even listening to music after a tension-filled day at work can feel relaxing, but we miss a key element here. While these activities might briefly take our minds off whatever stressful situation we’ve been dealing with, we usually end up simply postponing the worrisome thoughts or pushing them out of awareness, only to resurface when we go to bed.
Paradoxically, it is only by paying close attention to what’s going on inside us – particularly the very worries, anxiety and tension we are trying to avoid – that we can actually relax. Conscious relaxationteaches us to focus on what’s really happening in the moment, with our breath, body, emotions and thoughts. Rather than distracting the mind, we can utilize the mind to create its own relief.
As science currently reveals, the stressors in our busy lifestyles affect us in ways we may not even realize. The American Psychological Association provides some insights into when stress becomes dangerous and offers tips on how to recognize and cope with it. While non-traditional healing communities have encouraged stress managementpracticesin our country since the middle of the last century, it is only recently that mainstream medicine has begun to “catch up.” Now more medical doctors are recommending their patients practice yoga and meditation to alleviate stress, chronic pain and depression. Facilities such as Mayo Clinic acknowledge the negative health effects of stress, and promote alternative ways, like meditation and relaxation, to manage it.
So, does this mean that we now have definitive ways to rid ourselves of all that unhealthy stress? Well, probably not totally. But there are ways we can slow down long enough to catch our breath, relax our minds, release some physical tension, and at least for a short period of time, let go of all the doing. Simple techniques like meditation and conscious relaxation help us cope with and even reduce the stress of day-to-day living. A regular practice works to restore body and mind to a natural state of balance and harmony. And, while it’s true that we need some amount of healthy stress to be actively involved in our own lives, the amount of “dis-stress” (stress gone too far) we allow is what creates the tension, the anxiety and the disease that we are all trying to minimize.
Because our cultural bias towards the importance of “doing” keeps us in action mode, most of us have the impression that practicing relaxation doesn’t “count.” We continually construct “to-do” lists so we can work diligently to actively complete what’s on them. But what if we were to create a “to-be” list? What if we consciously chose to practice the art of slowing down? What if we deliberately developed proficiency in the act of just being, even for 5 or 10 minutes each day?
If you’re curious what that might feel like, try this 3-minute guided relaxation meditation. You can read the instructions and take yourself through the exercise, or download this recording (right click the link and select "Save Link As...")
- Sit or stand comfortably. Close your eyes or soften your gaze.
- Breathe naturally as you relax the muscles of your face, especially around your jaw. Relax your forehead and the space between your eyebrows. Release any tension from your shoulders.
- As you continue to breathe in and out through your nose, begin to notice the quality of your breath...the temperature of the air entering and exiting through your nostrils...the sensations of breath at the back of your throat... Without trying to change how you are breathing, simply tune in to what each breath feels like.
- Continue to breathe at a pace that feels relaxing. Mentally follow each inhalation and each exhalation. Pay attention to any movement in your chest, your abdomen, your sides and the back of your body.
- If you become aware of tension anywhere in your body, see how much wants to be released as you exhale. Continue to soften, physically and mentally.
- When you notice that your mind has wandered away from being focused on your breathing, gently, without any judgment, bring your attention back to the physical sensations of your breath.
- When you’ve completed five to ten rounds of this conscious breathing practice, bring your attention back to your body, maintaining awareness of whatever level of energy or sense of relaxation you are feeling.
- Slowly become aware of your external surroundings. As you prepare for the rest of your day or evening, reflect upon what you noticed and what stood out for you during this brief meditation. And, if it feels appropriate, create the intention to repeat this simple practice of paying attention to your breath tomorrow.
By giving ourselves permission to slow down, to relax, we begin the process of manifesting a body more at ease and a mind less disturbed, both of which are integral to maintaining optimal health and an overall sense of well being.