I recently wrote a blog called Mindfulness and Me. It sparked quite a lot of discussion about mindfulness, living consciously and the ability to relax. Typically people told me that they don’t have time to relax or that mindfulness doesn’t work for them because their brain is too busy. Most of all people said that they don’t really know how to relax. In this blog I hope to begin to teach you how to slow down and relax.
Relaxation is a skill and like every other skill it needs to be learned and practised. If you were learning to run you wouldn’t expect to run a marathon first time out. You would build up to it. You might even try a Couch to 5k programme where you walk a little run a little, walk a little. Over time you walk a little less and run a little more until you find that you can comfortably run for the whole 5 kilometers.
I like to think of learning how to slow down and relax as a 5k to Couch programme. You need to take your brain from running at full speed to resting state little by little. Eventually you will be able to comfortably slow it down for a longer period of time.
Before we start on relaxing I want to say a few words about learning. Learning is essentially a process of failing repeatedly until, with practice, you succeed. Failure is not a bad thing. Failure is the world’s way of giving you feedback on your efforts. Failure is an integral and essential part of learning. The Couch to 5k system was devised by analysing other people’s failed efforts to run. It is designed to help you find the instant gratification of success. But you will probably still find your own ways to fail, and therefore learn, along the way (running too fast, starting on a hill before you are ready etc).
Learning to relax in bite sized chunks is very similar. Inspired by other people’s failures it aims to give you some early success. You will probably still find small ways to fail/learn but you should be able to enjoy the benefits of some success too.
How to Slow Down and Relax
Step 1 The one minute breather
Stop what you are doing and step outside if you can. If not, stand at a window. Lift up your chin, look to the horizon and breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth. Repeat for one minute. Whilst breathing focus on what you can see, notice the shapes, the colours and the light. Notice what you can hear. Notice what you can smell. Feel the sunshine, rain, breeze etc. on your skin. Be present in the moment.
You will probably find that other thoughts intrude. That’s ok. Acknowledge those thoughts and then let them drift away. They might come back. That’s ok. Acknowledge them again and let them drift away – return to the moment. If you are feeling very anxious you may find you have a lot of intrusive thoughts. Just let them keep on drifting by. The harder you find this the more likely it is that you need some relaxation in your life.
Any failure to focus is just learning. It will get better with practice. Keep on practicing, three times a day to begin with. Choose times that work for you. When I first learned this technique I focussed on doing it every time I put the kettle on to boil. The kettle became the reminder I needed. You might prefer to schedule a reminder on your phone or to make this a regular first thing in the morning and last thing at night exercise.
Step 2 The five minute breather
When you can reliably stay in the moment for a full minute, try to gradually increase the time you spend simply breathing and noticing what you can see and hear and smell and feel. Progress from one minute to one and a half, to two minutes etc. until you can manage five minutes with few intrusive thoughts. This will take time and lots and lots of practice.
Step 3 What next?
Step three is up to you.
Now that you have learned how to slow down and relax a little, you might decide that this is enough. Just keep up the practice and you will soon feel the benefits of a calmer, clearer mind. Just like running, you can choose to run a regular 5k to maintain personal fitness. You don’t have to run further or faster for this to have major benefits to your health. If you don’t keep it up you will find it harder and harder to do and you might have to start again. That’s ok too. We are all just learning.
You might decide that you want to progress further (get race fit or run 10k instead of 5). To do that you need to find out which other, more advanced forms of relaxation really work for you. I will cover the next steps in next week’s blog – watch this space.
In the meantime, just keep on breathing.