So I'm back in therapy again, and my new therapist started our first session by having me close my eyes, take deep breaths, and calm down. Usually, I would launch right into a word stew about all the things I'm anxious and worried about. I might even go through a laundry list of all the things I need to accomplish this week. But the simple act of calming down before we started talking changed everything. I ended up crying and cutting right to the most pressing issues. I even opened up about childhood trauma...at our first session!
This experience got me thinking about the power of de-escalating and relaxing. As we head into month 12 of arguably the most stressful year in living memory, it's important to take a look at why calming down is so important and what we can do to get there.
The Power of Calm
There's a reason to start therapy sessions (or your morning routine) with some deep breathing and relaxation. The idea is that you're calming your body's stress response (think fight or flight), which gives your body and mind a chance to regroup and rejuvenate.
If your stress-response is always on, your immune system suffers, blood pressure increases, and you become more prone to anxiety and depression.
So what are some ways to quiet your body's stress-response and tap into some much-needed calm?
How to Calm the Heck Down
1. Breathing Exercises
Sure, that's kind of true. But many of us go through our days without breathing deeply. There's a difference between stressed-out shallow breathing and slow, steady, deep breaths.
This kind of deep meditative, intentional deep breathing is called pranayamic breathing, and it leads to all sorts of health benefits such as decreased oxygen consumption, decreased blood pressure, and increased alertness and reinvigoration.
I call my favorite breathing exercise Trace Your Hand. You hold one hand up and start tracing around that hand with the other hand. You breathe in when you trace up your thumb, then out when you trace down, then in when you trace up your index finger, and on and on until you trace around your entire hand.
I love this exercise because it forces me to breathe in and out five times, and the act of tracing helps me slow down and focus more easily and intently on the task at hand: breathing.
2. Visualization Exercises
You can also de-stress and experience that relaxation mode by trying visualization exercises. My favorite is to pretend I'm on a beach. I use all five senses to try to immerse myself in the imagined experience of chilling on a beach. I try to smell the ocean air and see and hear the waves.
Visualization exercises can help us de-stress by shifting our focus. I can't be worried about my bills and my to-do list when I'm imagining myself drinking Mai Tais on the beach. You can hold an extremely limited amount of information in your conscious thoughts, so try visualization to give your stressed-out conscious brain a break.
3. Get Away From Your Stressors
Another way to de-stress and kick that relaxation mode into high gear is to remove the stressor. That's right: Take a bath, take a walk, or take five minutes for yourself.
4. Play Pretend
I've also created some relaxation exercises that require you to play pretend. I find that if I pretend I'm a stereotypical California surfer dude, it's much easier to de-stress and tap into my relaxation mode. A simple, "No problem, dude" can go a really long way.
5. Make It a Game
Finally, I love to gamify relaxation. Instead of being jealous of all the relaxed people of the world, I try to be more relaxed than them. I call this game Relaxathon, and it helps me not take myself so seriously and be more relaxed at the same time.
Adding Relaxation to Your Daily Routine
I wasn't expecting this response, but I think it's a great metaphor for the power of replacing our stress response with relaxation and calming exercises.
The thing I love about these accessible, fun exercises is that I can commit to doing them throughout the day. I don't have to meditate for 15 minutes or do yoga for an hour. I can sprinkle relaxation throughout the day to give my mind and body a vacation from all the stress. And isn't that what we all need right about now?