For the past few decades we’ve been hearing about the importance of managing stress, but unless it’s overwhelming us, stress can seem like a pretty abstract issue. When people die, the cause of death is never listed as “stress”—although it’s quite likely to have played a big role. Stress really is a feature of virtually every form of illness. Whether it’s physical, emotional or mental stress, some element of it is present whenever we’re out of balance.
The visceral intensity of being on edge becomes deeply imprinted in our nervous system. Eventually, whether the object of our stress truly threatens us or not is almost irrelevant—a part of us believes that our survival is at stake and responds with tension and vigilance. This feeling can become so constant that many stressed people don’t even perceive that they’re stressed. The feeling of being stressed can become synonymous with the feeling of being awake.
It naturally follows that people who are relaxed—physically, mentally and emotionally—tend to be healthy. There are obviously exceptions to this, but relaxation is a good benchmark of health.
We all need, but are rarely taught, reliable methods for relaxing. To help you integrate relaxation into your life, here are a few tips:
1. Start with your breath
Breathing is something we can do without even thinking. But when we intentionally focus on our breath, it can become a form of relaxation. As we slow down the breath, making it deeper and prolonging the exhale, the mind slows down, too.
Close your eyes and bring your focus to your breath. Instead of following your own thoughts like you usually do, just “watch” what happens as you inhale and then exhale. Don’t manipulate anything or try to achieve anything. Just pay attention to your breath for one inhale and exhale, and then open your eyes. It will take only a few seconds. Do it now.
Make a commitment to do this about once each hour. Even if you occasionally forget, it’s a tool you can use anytime you notice you’re on edge. Come back to your breath, allow it to fill your belly, release it slowly and imagine your stress is leaving with it.
2. Work relaxation into your activities
One of the basic principles of traditional martial arts is that a good fighter is able to stay relaxed while simultaneously directing power to the challenge at hand. This applies to life a whole—you’ll be most effective when you’re able to stay relaxed, even while directing your energy into a demanding task.
Explore the apparent paradox of work and relaxation. Put yourself in situations that require intense mental focus or physical exertion, and relax. Notice when you start becoming tense or stressed on any level and relax again. As you learn to maintain a more constant awareness of what’s happening in your body, always keeping a portion of your attention on how you feel, you’ll recognize the presence of resistance, and you’ll be able to let it go more easily.
3. Release control
We are surrounded by energy. It can be called Love, Light, Qi, Prana or some other term. It’s a prevalent concept in numerous spiritual traditions, the healing arts and even modern physics. This energy is what you’re made of, and it’s always flowing through you. But your resistance to life and your attempts to control situations can impair the flow.
Take a step back and consider how it would feel if you believed you didn’t need to try to control the future. What if you could relax knowing that everything was being taken care of in a way that would serve your highest good? Practice telling yourself, “This will all be taken care of.”
Briana Borten and Dr. Peter Borten are the authors of the new book, Rituals for Transformation: 108 Day Journey to Your Sacred Life (The Dragontree 2017). They are the creators of the Rituals for Living online community, and Dragontree, a holistic wellness brand with books, courses and spas in Portland and Boulder. The Bortens are also authors of The Well Life (Simon and Schuster 2017) and The Rituals for Living Dreambook. Learn more at: www.thedragontree.com.