Relaxation: why it matters and how to do it

Relaxation isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity for healthy living. Learn how relaxation can help you and how to do it

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The importance of relaxation can’t be understated. When stress goes unchecked, it can not only affect your quality of life, it can also have an effect on your physical wellbeing.

The good news is that you can train yourself to cope better with stress. By building some simple relaxation methods into your life, you can overcome the body’s natural stress response and feel more in control. There are many ways of reducing stress, so it may take a bit of trial-and-error to find the set of methods that works for you.

What is stress?

The typical signs of stress are part of a natural response that humans have always had. The so called fight-or-flight response is the body’s way of reacting to a dangerous situation. Nowadays, stress is most likely to be caused by things like work deadlines, family commitments or traffic jams. While these aren’t an immediate danger, the body can’t tell the difference and reacts in the same way, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals that prime the body to take physical action.

One of the first signs of the stress response is the heart pumping blood around the body more quickly, delivering more oxygen to the muscles. You might feel this as palpitations or a thumping heart. Blood pressure, breathing rate, and muscle tension can all increase too. As well as oxygen, the body needs energy to face our modern-day stresses. In times of stress, the body cleverly accesses its energy stores (mainly in the form of glucose but also simple proteins and fats) to fuel the muscles that will be needed to deal with the danger. Meanwhile, digestion and energy storage slow down during the stress response.

A short stress response can be useful in the modern world, helping to give you the drive and focus to complete a task. Think of stage fright as an example. Many people say they perform better when they have some nervous energy. However, over time, if the stress response starts to become the norm, the effects have been linked to health problems like anxiety, depression, headaches, backaches, digestive difficulties, high blood pressure and lower resistance to infection. In people with type 2 diabetes, the release of various hormones in response to stress often raises blood glucose.

What is relaxation?

It’s not healthy to have the stress response continue for a long time. Once the immediate danger has passed, the body should reverse the physical changes brought on by stress. Heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscle tension and the release of glucose stores should all go back down to normal levels. If this doesn’t happen naturally, it may be time to learn some relaxation techniques that will signal to your body to reverse the stress response.

How stressed are you?

In addition to the normal stresses of everyday life, diabetes itself can add to the stress burden. Most people with diabetes need medication, dietary changes and regular monitoring of blood glucose. These aspects can put mental and psychological pressure on people, leading to negative emotions and anxiety.

Allow yourself to relax

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. Many of us were brought up to believe that “sitting around doing nothing” is a waste of time and something to be avoided at all costs. We sometimes feel guilty if we’ve got nothing to do. When you understand the link between stress and physical health, you can start to consider relaxation as an important activity in its own right. How can something that makes you feel better emotionally and physically be a waste of time?

So allow yourself some time in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and have a go at some of these relaxation techniques.

Relaxation techniques

There are lots of relaxation techniques. They are usually simple to do, although you might need a bit of practice at first. You can do relaxation exercises on your own or you might find it helpful to speak to an expert to help you get started – there are a number of apps, downloads, DVDs and websites available. There may even be some relaxation classes available in your local area.

Breathe 

When we become stressed our breathing can become shallow and more rapid. This shallow breathing disturbs the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide On the other hand, taking slow deep breaths using the whole of your abdomen plays a role in many relaxation techniques. Try the following steps to get started:

  1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position, and close your eyes
  2. Put one hand just below your belly button; put your other hand on your chest
  3. Feel your stomach rise slightly with each breath in and feel it fall with each breath out; the hand on your chest should have little or no movement while you breathe during this exercise
  4. Carry on for as long as you feel you want to, gradually slowing down your breathing

When you’ve got the hang of deep breathing, you can actually use it anywhere to take the stress out of a particular situation, even if you’re on the go and can’t sit or lie down in that moment.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Relaxation downloads

If you’d like an audio download to start you off with some of these relaxation techniques, why not try these audio downloads from the NHS

A really popular stress management technique is called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). It incorporates both physical and mental aspects by helping you to focus on, and relax, each part of your body from the toes upwards. You can use a CD or audio download to help guide you. The main steps are as follows:

  1. Lie on your back with your arms and legs uncrossed and your hands placed loosely next to you
  2. Take a deep breath and hold it while tightening your whole body for a few seconds and then breathe out through your mouth as you let your body go limp– repeat this a couple of times
  3. Now you are going to consciously relax each part of your body starting at your feet; become aware of your toes and then your ankles; think of them relaxing and feeling very heavy as they sink into the bed or floor
  4. Repeat with each body part in turn

Meditation 

Meditation doesn’t have to mean sitting cross-legged saying, “ommm”, and it does not need to be a religious or spiritual exercise. It is simply a way of focusing your brain on a simple repeated word, sound or phrase so that you can ignore any other thoughts that pop into your head. Think of it as giving your brain a well earned break. The basic steps of meditation are:

  1. Pick a short focus word or phrase – it could be “ommm” or anything you find calming
  2. Sit or lie in a comfortable position, and close your eyes
  3. Try to relax your muscles, and start noticing your breathing
  4. Repeat your focus word or phrase to yourself each time you breathe out
  5. Don’t worry if any distracting thoughts come up, accept that they are there and disregard them
  6. Continue for 10–20 minutes

It’s all in the mind 

Mindfulness, or being “in the moment”, is a variation on meditation. In this technique, you focus on moment-to-moment awareness without judging or reacting to the things you notice. You can use mindfulness during breathing exercises or to help with meditation. It can also be used throughout the day to help become more fully aware of your experiences and surroundings. The goal is to slow down, focus on one thing, and give it your full attention. Here is a useful way to practice mindfulness:

  1. Take some long deep breaths in and out
  2. Focus on what is happening right now – notice things like the feeling of the armchair against your legs or the temperature of the air you are breathing; try to let go of any other thoughts
  3. If any other thoughts pop into your head, try to let them go and return your mind to focus on what you can feel – if it helps, you can acknowledge any unwanted thoughts by saying to yourself “I’m not going to think about that right now”

Go to a happy place in your head

The Free Mindfulness Project

You can find a number of downloadable guided mindfulness exercises free of charge at freemindfulness.org

With mindfulness, you focus intently on the actual sensations you’re experiencing. Imagination exercises are similar, except that you focus on something imaginary and calming. It might be a completely imaginary scene or it might be a real place, such as a favourite holiday destination. There are also books and audio tracks that can help guide this exercise, often taking you on an imaginary wander through a beautiful garden.

Our furry friends

A pet can be a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation. Dogs and cats can provide great benefits for our mental and emotional wellbeing. Having a routine of walking your dog regularly allows some “me time” and gives your mind and body a bit of a workout. If you don’t have a dog, ask friends or neighbours, or you could join borrowmydoggy.com to see if there’s a dog in the local area that you can take out for walks and spend time with.

Even just stroking, sitting next to or playing with a pet can give you a chance to relax and calm your mind. Caring for a pet can also give structure to your day, helping you to feel valuable and needed – important elements for a healthy mind.

Exercise and emotional health

You are probably aware that exercise stimulates the release of so-called “happy hormones” in your brain called endorphins. But did you know that endorphins also may actually improve your body’s insulin action, helping to decrease insulin resistance. So exercise is good for your body and your mind. By incorporating some gentle exercise into every day, you can make the most of those hormones and improve your fitness and mood.

Exercise doesn’t always need to mean running or getting sweaty. Exercises that involve large muscle groups in the whole body with rhythmic and low intensity movements have been shown to help reduce depression and encourage a sense of vigour, youth and positive emotions. Martial arts like qi gong or tai chi are good examples of soft and slow exercise, and of course walking in the fresh air is free and can be done any time. What’s more, research has shown that walking can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke and can also help you tone up. Walking can also be a great moving meditation.

Pitfalls to avoid

Being aware of your relationship with food and the times when you tend to comfort eat can help you to avoid reaching for unhealthy snacks when you’re feeling under pressure. Having a healthy balanced diet that includes natural carbohydrates like those found in whole fruit, fibre, vitamins and minerals can have a soothing effect on your mood.

It might seem like alcohol or smoking help you relax. The truth is that they actually make stress worse. Making healthy choices to relieve stress and improve relaxation will have long-term benefits on both your physical and emotional health.

Be good to yourself and take some time to try some of these relaxation techniques. You’ll not only be better equipped to cope with your own stressful challenges in daily life, but you may also notice an overall improvement in your mood and wellbeing.