Using Mindfulness for Relaxation
August 15, 2019
“Relax!” “Calm down!” “Chill out!”
When you are stressed out, and you hear these words from co-workers, friends or family, have you ever noticed that they often do not have the intended effect? Your emotional experiences may stick around – whether they are anxiety, stress or irritability. You may even notice the opposite response when you attempt to “force” relaxation – you may become more tense, nervous or internally unsettled. While our intuition may tell us we need to do something to calm down, to suppress or avoid that internal experience – perhaps there is a better option.
Conventional Relaxation Techniques
You may be familiar with conventional relaxation techniques designed to target your body’s autonomic nervous system (the nervous system branch that prepares us to act on threat or danger; the “fight or flight” system) – the classic one being breathing from the diaphragm, in which you slow down your breathing in an intentional fashion to force or override your body’s sympathetic nervous system to calm down. Targeted physiological relaxation strategies can induce a state of relaxation in the short-term and may help us get through that daunting work presentation, ride out that stress in the teeth of rush hour I-25 traffic, or help us tolerate that screaming toddler in the grocery line.
The Benefits of Using Mindfulness
For a deeper sense of inner peace, consider mindfulness. I frequently teach this practice to my Denver Health patients.
Right now, mindfulness is trendy – Time Magazine recently published a recurring special edition focused exclusively on the technique. People from all walks (and paces) of life have found this mental stance to be a valuable addition to their coping arsenal – from employees of major Fortune 500 companies (Nike, Apple and Google to name a few) to Buddhist monks to professional athletes (Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks hired a psychologist to teach the team mindfulness in 2014, the year they won the Superbowl XLVIII – sorry for the painful reminder to our Broncos fans). But it is not just these unique figures who can benefit from it.
What is Mindfulness?
So what is mindfulness? While there are many definitions, a commonly accepted one is that mindfulness is:
- A practice in which a person focuses their attention intentionally on the present moment
- Using a non-judgmental attitude
The mindfulness tradition is far from new – the practice has its origins in centuries-old Eastern philosophies. Nevertheless, the technique is not exclusive to any particular philosophical, religious or organization context and can be used by anyone regardless of ideology. People can also practice mindfulness while engaged in a variety of activities, including:
Benefits of Mindfulness
With consistent practice, clinical research has shown mindfulness has helped with a variety of physical and mental health conditions, including:
- Clinical depression
- Chronic pain
- Eating disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- A range of medical conditions
- Neurological (brain level) changes
How to Practice Mindfulness
So how do you get started with mindfulness? Here are some tips for a great first exercise:
- Find a quiet place where you can have some space from others
- Find a chair that you can sit on with some contact between your body (back, legs) and the chair
- Close your eyes and focus intentionally and with a sense of curiosity on your breath, following it as it moves in through your nostrils, fills your lungs, and exits through your mouth
- Do this non-judgmentally, without trying to change your breath in any way
- Just allow your breath to breathe, but notice where it goes and follow it throughout the process
- After several minutes – 3-5 minutes is a good starting point – shift your attention to the parts of your body that make contact with your chair
- Focus on these body areas and notice any sensations that are present
- If you feel an itch, resist the urge to scratch it
- If your mind wanders off, gently notice where it went and stretch your “mindfulness muscle” by gently escorting your attention back to your breath or your body, whatever you are focusing on at the time
- If difficult thoughts, sensations, emotions, or urges arise, be willing to make room for them, even if they are stressful
Opening yourself up to whatever experience is coming up, whether positive, negative or even aversive, is a key feature that makes the mindfulness practice effective.
I recommend to my patients that they practice this and similar exercises consistently, and create space for them in their daily lives. These take real committed practice to integrate, but the value is there! I often tell patients – “this is like the first time you rode a bike without training wheels or shot a basketball the right way – it may be tough to stay with it, but over time you will build stamina and those mindfulness muscles.”
When practicing, some patients do note a state of relaxation can manifest itself, although this is not a goal, rather it is a by-product that sometimes happens. As you continue, at some point, you may notice a shift where you experience increased openness to whatever internal experiences may come up. Perhaps the experience of stress or anxiety may still be there – along with its associated baggage (e.g., tight muscles, urges to avoid), but these experiences may also take on a different quality, one in which they no longer need to be the predominant experience we are trying to suppress or the suffering associated with them decreases.
With a present-moment and willing practice of mindfulness, we may get less stuck in the past or worrying about the future, as we anchor ourselves in the now. My advice is to treat it as an experiment, and give it a try.
If you are interested in additional exercises, I recommend a great self-help book "Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy" by Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D. and Spencer Smith.
So, this National Relaxation Day, consider trying something different – an age old technique that may bring with it a state of relaxation, but also something far deeper and more vital – an internal sense of acceptance and willingness to face what is present.