So, you’ve learned to foster a positive stress mindset and to not rely on control strategies & avoidance techniques to cope with your stress. So what’s the point of “relaxation” and “stress reduction” techniques?
Imagine having total energy and vitality. What could you do? How would you act? Having the physical and mental energy and sharpness allows you to do what you want, whether in work, life, relationships, or play.
The problem is that we live in a society that promotes the “go until you can’t no more” mentality. Eat. Sleep. Grind. Repeat. You can’t stop the “hustle.”
It’s drilled into our mind that if we ever stop working, that we will regress and become a failure. In other words, we define ourselves by how much we do.
This mindset leads us to work, work, and work, until we can’t no more. We burnout, we are chronically fatigued, and we think something is wrong with us.
There is a way to get the results we want without overflowing our capacities and burning out.
“The overachievers simply tend to get sick more, get injured more and have subpar results in their workouts, their racing and their events. This may not seem “fair”, but it’s simply the reality of everybody having a finite biological stress coping mechanism.“Ben Greenfield
We have a finite biological stress coping mechanism. What this means is that, whereas stress isn’t inherently bad, our bodies can only handle so much before it’s energy reserves run out.
That’s the key, then: managing energy and fatigue, not stress.
In Robert Weinberg and Daniel Gould’s book Foundations of Sport & Exercise Psychology, they distinguish between stress, anxiety, and arousal:
- Stress – a person’s physical and psychological response to a perception of the situation
- Anxiety – an emotional state characterized by nervousness, worry, and apprehension and associated with activation or arousal of the body
- Arousal – a blend of physiological and psychological activity in a person
The difference between stress & anxiety and arousal is that stress & anxiety are more about a feeling and perception of a situation. Arousal, on the other hand, is straight up activity. Stress and anxiety are subjective, whereas arousal is an objective measurement of activity.
Stress and anxiety may cause arousal, but arousal doesn’t always mean stress & anxiety. Arousal may mean excitement or fear. It is more about stimulation than it is about feeling & thinking. Stress can be mastered. Arousal and stimulation must be managed and allowed to recover when depleted.
Think of arousal like working out a muscle. In order for a muscle to grow, it must be stimulated (by working it out), followed by a proper recovery period. If we were to work that same muscle out every single day without letting it recover, we would be tearing it down without letting it build back up. Eventually, it burns out, and we may develop sickness and get injured.
Your nervous system is like a giant muscle that regulates both your physical and psychological arousal. When stimulated, it activates a division called the sympathetic nervous system, which causes our body to go into a hyperactive state. Without proper recovery from stimulation, it will begin to burnout, leaving us running on empty.
In fact, one study showed that rats who were allowed a time of quiet and recovery after being introduced to new stimuli (i.e., a new maze) developed more neural connections (brain pathways) than those who were allowed little to no downtime.
Relaxation and stress reduction techniques, such as breathwork and message, are more about recovery from stimuli than they they are about “managing” stress.
Here, we give a brief overview of some of our favorite relaxation and recovery techniques you can use to help manage your energy levels. Be careful how you use them, though: using them as a control strategy to avoid stress can help with short-term relaxation, but may reinforce the mindset that stress is bad, potentially causing stress to come back even stronger than before. It’s a vicious cycle.
Rather, we can use these techniques to calm the nervous system and allow it to recover it’s energy supplies. Many of these strategies are taken from the book The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook: Seventh Edition, by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Eshelman, and Matthew McKay.
Getting enough quality sleep is the number one thing you can do to recover, both physically and psychologically. For adults, this generally means between 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Eating a balanced and nutritious diet, full of whole foods and colorful fruits and vegetables and staying hydrated, is one of the most foundational things you can do to “fill the tank” with proper fuel. Not much else you do to manage arousal will do that much if you aren’t doing this.
Autogenic training involves responding to verbal cues in a relaxed state, such as “my arms are heavy and warm” to help calm and relax the body and the mind. This meditative-like technique is great for reducing fatigue, as well as relieving physical and psychological tension.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
One of our favorites, PMR involves contracting and relaxing each muscle group in the body, one at a time. This is supposed to relieve physical and psychological tension in the body. It’s even been shown to be beneficial for relieving tension headaches and muscle stiffness.
Breathwork is exactly what it sounds like: breathing. There are many forms of breathwork. Some of them focus on the tempo of breathing (e.g., box breathing), whereas others focus on how we breathe (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, nostril breathing). Focusing on the breath and learning proper breathing techniques can help activate the “rest and digest” division of the nervous system, called the parasympathetic nervous system.
Visualization involves imagining a picture or scenario in your head. Generally, this is done while in a relaxed or meditative state. There are at least three different types of visualization:
- Receptive Visualization: sketching an image of a scene, such as a beach with a light breeze. Use your senses to create the setting (i.e., sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing).
- Programmed Visualization: imagining a desired outcome, such as reaching a goal or the process of attaining a goal (e.g., exercising).
- Guided Visualization: start with one aspect of a scene, and let things come as they will. For example, first imagine a relaxing setting, such as a beach. Then let your mind fill in the rest. It might add in some palm trees, or a cliff, or maybe some dolphins out in the ocean. The goal is to not force your imagination.
Performing a body scan means turning your attention from the outside world and into your body by focusing on external (senses) and internal (feelings, emotions, etc.) sensations. It’s important to do this mindfully and without judgment, seeing and feeling as things are, without trying to get rid of them (that will create tension). Performing a body scan forms the basis of many other relaxation techniques, as it is an effective way to get into a relaxed state.
We were hesitant to put meditation in this list because we feel that it is easy to use as a control strategy or avoidance technique. Getting into a meditative state involves relieving all tension, physical and psychological, through being nonjudgmentally aware of the present moment, acceptance and surrender, and resting our curiosity on a focal point (often the breath or a physical sensation). Meditation helps us be in a state of flow (in the zone), creating optimal conditions to learn skills such as mindfulness or learning to adopt a new mindset.
That said, being in a meditative state is being in a state of deep relaxation.
There are many forms of meditation. One of our favorites is Mindfulness meditation.
Mind-body movement refers to forms of movement and exercise that have a strong emphasis on the mind-body connection, such as yoga, Tai Chi, some forms of martial arts, and pilates. These forms of exercise are great for connecting with yourself and your body, and have a meditation-like component to them.
Other forms of Self-Care
Other forms of self-care, such as getting a massage, sitting in a jacuzzi, or going for a walk, are also great for relaxation and recovery. You be the judge: if the activity is truly relaxing to you, physically, mentally, and/or emotionally, then do it!
Lot’s of people like to exercise as a form of this type of self-care. If this is you, be careful not to overdo it (remember, the goal is to recover here). Slow and steady state exercise (e.g., walking, biking, slow jog) that isn’t super intense or prolonged has also been shown to be beneficial for recovery.
With these forms of self-care, be sure to do things that you genuinely want to do. If we do something for enjoyment simply because we are trying to escape or avoid uncomfortable feelings, are we really going to enjoy that activity as much as we could?
“The type of motivation determines the onset of mental overreaching and burnout: being motivated to do something because you authentically want to do that task for personal reasons will lead to improvement, whereas the feeling of being obligated to do that same task for any reason is exhausting, and will lead to mental overreaching and/or burnout.”Unknown