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Best ways to relax naturally

Besides doing exercise, it is really important to relax as well. However, only try relaxing first thing in the morning, or some time after you have exercised. Done regularly, this will help you to rebalance your basic bodily functioning (the autonomic nervous system), which is what gets overstressed. For most people under stress, it is very difficult to relax—for two main reasons: (1) they think they cannot afford the time; and (2) they are so stressed that they cannot relax easily. It is therefore necessary to build in a programme of relaxation (ideally once or twice a day for twenty minutes).

There are many different ways to relax. Here are several suggestions:

Progressive relaxation. You can get booklets, tapes or CDs of (usually) progressive relaxation exercises that tell you how first to tense, then to relax, progressively, all the various sets of individual muscle groups in your body (feet, calves, thighs, buttocks, etc.). As you do this, you tend to relax generally more and more. It is sometimes called “differential relaxation”.

Autogenic therapy. I often teach people the principles of a form of relaxation known as “autogenic therapy”. This was designed for people with hypertension. It works using a mental script and an image for the various parts of the body. The advantage of learning a system like this is that you can do it anywhere and without any special equipment. You can get a book that teaches you the details, or there are special autogenic therapists who can be found through the Autogenic Therapy Association website. It is medically recognized as being effective for hypertension (high blood pressure). It could also work for your stress.

Music. Certain types of music are very soothing and relaxing: Mozart, Chopin, some Bach, Boccherini, etc. Try to get some CDs or tapes and listen to what works for you in the car, or at home, instead of listening to the radio. Alternatively, tune your car radio to Radio 3, or Classic FM, rather than the news or pop music. CDs of whale songs or Peruvian flute music can also be relaxing. Set some special time aside, possibly with a comfortable set of headphones, and chill out.

Warm water. This is very relaxing. Go for Radox-type baths, a nice long soak, with a candle and some music in the background. Or get yourself to the nearest jacuzzi, maybe even in your lunch hour. Hydrotherapy is a very well-established relaxation treatment.

Massageis an excellent form of relaxation. It does not particularly matter what type of massage, but aromatherapy massages are now quite popular and fairly readily available. They will usually cost £20–30 but it is an excellent investment to kick-start you into a better pattern of relaxation and self-care. Ask your partner for a foot-massage as you watch TV together. Sometimes a bit of self-massage helps: first work your fingers across the scalp; then into the back of your neck; then one shoulder after another; then those tense muscles at the top of the chest towards the shoulder and by the collar bones; these can all be massaged by yourself, taking only a minute or two, while at work, and without any embarrassment. Stretch and yawn before you go back to your task, refreshed and more relaxed.

Breaksare also important. You (are supposed to) have scheduled tea breaks at work: so take them. Do not work on through them. You should have a half-hour minimum lunch break, by law: take it! Get out of the office or workplace. Do not pass up on holidays, or time in lieu. If you work from home, take five minutes every hour—as a minimum—and a lunch break away from your work area. Arrange for quality time away: minibreaks, long weekends, or whatever. Anything less than this is essentially counter-productive in the long term.

Do something different. Areally good form of relaxation is to do something completely different. It does not have to be specifically relaxing: it could be something like Pilates, Tai Chi, Aikido, or Yoga. Something physical is probably better than something sedentary, and these disciplines are more balancing than relaxing. But it could be a local drama group or a choir: something that will take you out of yourself, allow you to do something different, and help you to meet others as well.

Reading, watching films or TV, listening to music or the radio, can also be quite relaxing—in relatively small doses: doing it too much can be a way of just “cutting off”, and this is not very relaxing. It is best to have a regular routine and stick to it: reading the paper on the way to work, or watching the news or a favourite TV show at a set time.

Meditation. Nearly every religion or culture practises some form of meditation. There have been a number of scientific studies to show that it has quite profound effects on both mind and body, if done regularly. It does not seem to matter particularly what type of meditation is practised: there is an example of one later.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness practice, a form of meditation, is now becoming accepted within the realms of CBT, or they are adopting it because it has been shown to be effective. Some of the “Mindfulness” practised is in the form of a meditation; however, it can be extended into everyday life. One of the proponents of such a practice is a remarkable Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk called Thich Nhat Hahn. Besides being nominated for a Nobel Peace prize, he has written a number of easily readable books, now mainstream in the National Health Service. Again, it really does not matter physiologically (to your body) what type of relaxation you do. The important aspect is to really “chill out”, almost to the point where you are “blissing out” a little—that state where you are almost falling asleep or having daydream-type images.

Please remember that you are trying to move from the stressedout “sympathetic” end of the Autonomic Nervous System spectrum towards the “parasympathetic” end of the ANS spectrum. This is going to take some time, plenty of practice, and regularity. I usually recommend that people should do about twenty minutes of relaxation 8–9 times per week. The type of relaxation also needs to work for you. If you are a classical music enthusiast, that isn’t a problem. For others, it might be something physical, something more social, or something quite solitary.

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