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Relaxation: luxury or necessity?

Updated: Feb 10

Relaxation: just the mention of it makes some people YAWN with boredom and others go a bit crazy and run for the hills. And, by golly, it’s particularly hard for us in the 21st century. How many times do I hear this as a physio – I can’t relax, I tried relaxation once and it didn’t work ( I love that one, in particular) I relax by working out/baking/running ( the last one sometimes comes with a fearful look that says…surely you don’t mean that I should be trying that relaxation sh*te…. roll of eyes…..etc etc)

Well, as a matter of fact, I AM…..I have FINALLY realised just how important relaxation is for me, and for my patients/everyone/the whole wide world and I plan on SHOUTING IT FROM THE HILLS until people start listening. It’s not only important, it’s NECESSARY for good health. Confession: in the past year, I think I’ve become the relaxation police and I’m now ramming it (politely, of course)down the throats of my patients, poor things.

But seriously, I have also really realised how important it is for people to find a way to relax that DOESN’T involve some physical activity. Not that there is anything wrong with activity to reduce stress: I love the way running makes me feel too ( I can’t say the same about baking, Ha Ha!). Physical activity helps us to clear all those stress hormones and gets the ‘stressed’ feeling out of our bodies. HOWEVER, you need to have a back-up plan because what happens if you get injured, have no time to go to the gym, you finally get arthritis in your shoulder and can’t whisk the eggs, or ( like what happened to me) you get a condition where exercise and activity just makes you worse.

Think about the past year and the way our activities have been curtailed, many of them ones that we did for ‘relaxation’, and look at how the stress levels have gone wild throughout the country. Yep, my friends, a back-up plan is a good idea…learning how to induce physiological relaxation (reducing heart rate, blood pressure, breath rate etc) WITHOUT physical activity.

So what is so great about relaxation and why is it so important for us?

Relaxation is important for combatting the effects of stress on our bodies. Excess stress has a PROFOUND and negative effect on our bodies. When we are stressed our sympathetic nervous system kicks into action, also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The hormones released in our bodies increase our heart rate, our blood pressure, tense our muscles, stop our gut from working and prepare us for a fast exit from the stressful event (in caveman terms: running from the big tiger we see on front of us)….If too many of these are in our body for the long term, these things too become long term: we acquire high blood pressure, heart problems, sleep disorders, tense muscles and poor gut health. This predisposes us to all kinds of diseases, including heart disease, cancer, burnout, joint and muscle disorders…this last one is an effect I see all the time as a physio.

It’s very likely that the fast pace of life in the 21st century is itself a major cause of stress…It’s quite shocking the amount of running and racing people do in a regular week. In times gone past, people naturally slowed down in the winter and hibernated a bit, due to the lack of daylight, but with the advent of electricity in the last 100 years or so, this doesn’t happen anymore. Work starts a lot earlier than it used to: when I was growing up, no-one started school before 9 and most people started work at 9.30….now the work day has started earlier and earlier and people are working longer days….as well as being expected to take work calls during evenings and holiday times…unthinkable just a decade ago! And we also are fitting more and more leisure/social activities into our evenings. Back in the 1980s, the lack of money ( in Ireland at least) curtailed the degree of leisure activities and socialising that people did, but that is no longer the case. To make it worse, we are now ‘ON’ all the time if we use social media, so there is no shortage of news, events, engaging with people…it’s exhausting….No wonder people are tired or stressed. So it is very hard to slow down as there are no external factors stopping us from doing more and more… except time (hurrah for time!) or sheer WILLPOWER to stop and get off the spinning wheel.

So when I talk to patients about relaxation…..I understand WHY it is so hard to do…when we are constantly ON THE GO, we simply forget how to stop and also HOW LOVELY IT IS TO STOP. For the physiological health of our bodies, it is so important to be able to relax, to switch off the ‘fight or flight’ response and engage with the parasympathetic nervous system…when you truly relax, your blood pressure decreases, your heart rate lowers, your gut works better, you sleep better, your muscles feels less tense, your body can rest and repair….sounds good, doesn’t it? AND, doing it regularly has a knock-on effect of making you a bit more chilled during stressful times.

How do I get started?

The overall aim is to try and find a practice that you can do, in your own time that relaxes you entirely and completely and makes you feel a bit zen (floaty, dreamy, happy for no reason), releasing all your ‘feel good’ brain chemicals. You also need to find something that suits you and your personality, without giving up if the first thing you try doesn’t suit. Once you find it, you need to PRIORITISE it.

So here is my guide on how to approach the serious business of relaxation….our search for that zen feeling and our lovely and mostly inactive parasympathetic nervous system ( our rest and relaxation state).

If you are a novice, then you may at first need to try something passive like:

  • a massage

  • · a reflexology session

  • a hot bath with oils

  • someone told me that floatation baths are the biz!

  • anything that gives you that floaty, dreamy happy feeling (not alcohol or substances!)

Once you’ve got your appetite whetted for relaxation, you might like to try some of the following. Keep an open mind and one of them is bound to suit you:

  • breathing exercises – no, they are not boring and yes, they work…see my amazing (ha!) videos on this here– the simplest way in the world to destress is by using our breathing to access our parasympathetic nervous system.

  • mindfulness – loads of apps and internet resources on this, including Headspace

  • meditation – I do this myself, it takes practice. I’d advise going to a meditation class to start with but lots of people are trying Dermot Whelan’s meditations (from Dermot and Dave the radio DJs). There are loads of methods of meditation, not all are the same and there is bound to be a type that suits you.

  • Guided meditations/relaxations, such as on the free app 'Insight Timer'

  • Yin Yoga or restorative yoga: these classes are not physical, you spend ages in each pose and lots of breathing…I have literally floated out of yin yoga classes…

  • Ah go on, try one of my yoga flow classes...but that's breaking the non-physical rule..(!)

  • Yoga Nidra relaxations – guided visualisations, coming from the yoga tradition. There is some good research to show you access slower brain wave patterns with certain types of Nidra. Some are a bit far out…but others not - I got addicted for a while…!.

  • Somatics classes. With me naturally (!) – see my blog here

If you are really anxious, you ought to talk to your GP about counselling (very helpful, I can testify to that, but you need a counsellor that you like and gel with – this is important!) or medication. People are so testy about medication (who, me? I’m not THAT bad…) but there are some seriously good options out there that can dramatically improve your quality of life, if your GP is in agreement. SSRIs ( selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are one option and don’t necessarily have to be taken for life. Serotonin is one of our naturally occurring ‘happy’ chemicals. Some people are naturally lower in serotonin than others (me included). What SSRIs are believed to slow down the breakdown of serotonin in our brains, leading to an overall increase in brain serotonin levels. You just overall feel calmer and things that used to bother you just don’t…well, that’s been my experience of them. But this is a medical issue and so needs to be discussed with a medical person and not me.

But, back to stimulating our natural methods of inducing happy brain states….by having a regular relaxation practice/agenda, the net result is that during the times when you need to be ON (work, family commitments etc) you are better able to tolerate stress ( note I’m avoiding that overused and abused term ‘resilience’), less reactive, less fearful, less angry and more likely to enjoy life a bit, more likely to take it in your stride. Not all of the time, but some of the time….not a bad outcome, eh?

And finally, I’m not a life coach but here are some suggestions that I have found useful:

  • Factor in a ‘relaxation hour’ every day or

  • Factor in a ‘relaxation night’ a week or a ‘relaxation weekend’ a month to do nothing

  • Only look at social media once/day ( shock horror, yes once!…try it…very liberating)

  • Don’t listen to or read the news every day ( the world will go on without you)

  • Learn to say no to people ( what’s the worst that can happen)

  • Realise that relaxation is a skill…the more of it you do, the better you get at it

I hope this has given you some food for thought. Relaxation is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Enjoy the journey!

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