A few years back, one of my regular massage clients suddenly began canceling her appointments at the last minute. She continued to book her sessions as usual once a month, but then on the night before her scheduled session, I would get an email informing me that she needed to cancel. She would always book again right away, for a day a couple weeks later from the cancelled date, so I didn’t think too much of it. I always figured something came up at work that required her attention. But after a few months of this new routine of canceling and rescheduling, only to cancel and reschedule again, I decided it was time to find out what was up.
It had been a particularly busy period for her at work, she explained. She was feeling stressed out and very much in need of her regular massage sessions, but each time she received an email from me reminding her of her appointment the following day, she would think about all the things she had not done that week because she had been so focused on work. She had not exercised as often as she wanted, or she really needed to go grocery shopping. There was a long list of errands building up each day, and she felt guilty about spending an hour getting a massage when she could have been accomplishing one of these many tasks. Or if she actually made it in for a session, she could not relax and would spend the massage thinking about all of the things she should have been doing instead. So she would cancel her appointment and vow to go to the gym, or clean her bathroom, or do any of the other number of things that she had been putting off, but could not fully put out of her mind. When I told her that I understood that feeling and hoped postponing the massage appointments had helped her feel more on top of things and less stressed in general, she confessed that each time she had used the extra hour to stay at work later and had not actually made any progress on her to-do list.
I wish I could say her experience is unique, but her struggle is one I have heard countless times from my clients. Their lives are so busy and overbooked. Though they recognize a need for stress reduction and want to make their health and well being a priority, they have trouble letting go and allowing themselves a moment of respite. I have clients who will opt for thirty minute sessions instead of a full hour because they simple have too many obligations in their day and thirty minutes is the longest window of uninterrupted time their schedules will allow. I have had clients tell me that it has taken them years of regular massages to finally reach a point where they can get through an hour-long session without spending the majority of the time thinking about what they need to do later that day, next week, or even a year from now.
We have reached a point in our culture where our lives are completely out of balance. The workday never seems to really end when we are always available by phone or text, or email. In a society where idleness is tantamount to laziness (and laziness is practically the boogeyman of character traits), it is no wonder that efforts to let go of our other priorities and actually dedicate time to relaxation are so often fruitless and the first thing we are willing to sacrifice when something “more important” comes along.
The problem with that thinking, though, is that relaxation is vital to our wellbeing. Not only does it actually help increase our productivity, it is undeniably beneficial to our health and longevity. Humans are evolutionarily hard wired to have a full body physical response to stressors. It is a survival mechanism. When we are confronted with an object or situation that threatens our safety or livelihood, our bodies spring into action and initiate a fight-or-flight response. Our sympathetic nervous systems are activated and a whole host of physical changes occur, from increases in heart rate, blood pressure and respirations, to changes in digestive functioning, vision and auditory functioning, and hormone activation. These changes are great when your source of stress is an actual threat that can be addressed and extinguished. The threat disappears and your body can relax again. But when the source of your stress is every little thing the comes up during the course of a busy day, and a long list of “threats” begins to build up and overwhelm you, it becomes impossible to extinguish all of those stressors and your body never gets the message that everything is okay now, and it is safe to relax.
Unfortunately, modern living tends to distort and alter what are otherwise advantageous natural responses. The neurotransmitter dopamine leads us to seek and explore, and move forward in the direction of our goals. How useful! But when it comes to modern technologies–texting and twitter, and all the other apps and sites we cannot seem to keep ourselves from checking obsessively–dopamine may be to blame for our growing addiction. The body’s fight-or-flight response helps keep us alive in the immediate presence of danger, but it negatively affects our health in the face of chronic, repeated stress. Our bodies are constantly shifting into fight-or-flight mode to protect us from things that are not real dangers, but rather parts of our ordinary day-to-day lives. When everything feels like an immediate, crucial demand on our physical, mental, or emotional energy, it is no wonder that we do not know how to simply relax anymore.
It is a skill that needs to be learned (or relearned and retrained, time and again). If your mind and body are in a near-constant state of overdrive, it is not as simple as flipping a switch and feeling suddenly, fully relaxed. I tell my clients that relaxation is like a sport, or speaking a different language: it is a skill you have to develop over time, through regular practice and training. It may feel counterintuitive to have to work hard in order to learn how to let go of working so hard, but it is the truth. You need to teach yourself to recognize your own tension and stress, and train your body to release that tension and shift into a state of relaxation.
Here is a simple exercise to both gauge your current relaxation ability, and begin the process of learning how to relax:
- Find a comfortable seated position, either in a chair, on your couch, or on the floor. Ideally, you want to be in a space that is quiet and free of distractions.
- Set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes.
- Close your eyes and shift your focus to your breath.
- When you inhale, think inhale. When you exhale, think exhale.
- When a thought enters your mind, simply acknowledge it and then return your focus to your breath. Inhale, exhale.
Five minutes is very little time in which to accomplish most tasks, but it can feel like a very long time when you are just sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing. Resist the urge to open your eyes. Resist the urge to fidget and shift positions. Do not try to count the seconds in your mind. If your mind wanders, that is fine, just keep bringing it back again to your breath. Above all else, resist the urge to check how much time is left. You want to get a sense of how long five minutes feels for you. If it feels like it flies by, wonderful! Next time you do this exercise, bump it up to seven minutes, or even ten. If five minutes somehow feels like a near eternity, continue to stick with five. Keep repeating this exercise until five minutes actually feels relaxing, your mind stops shifting to other concerns, and you wish you could sit for longer, just enjoying this moment of peace and quiet.
Try to find five minutes every day to perform this exercise. Try it first thing in the morning and see if it changes your approach to the day ahead. Try it just before bed, after all your work is done for the day, to see if it helps you feel more restful and improves your sleep. Try it when you are right in the middle of a stressful few hours, with a lot of work on your plate and too many demands for your attention. Perhaps it will help you reset and will allow you to approach your work with new energy and a clear head.
Do not admonish yourself if it feels hard at first. Stick with it and keeping trying. It takes time to develop a new skill. But I assure you it is worth it. For your mind and your body, there is value in learning to relax.