Dr. Jeff Mandelkorn, PhD
Are Your Relaxation Strategies Having The Opposite Effect?
Think about the last time you relaxed. What were you doing? You might have been taking a walk, a bike ride, or a yoga class. Or it was when you were enjoying a night out with friends. Or perhaps it was when you were curled up on the couch watching the latest sci-fi psychological thriller. Maybe that sounds like a relaxing night.
If you are anything like most people, we often associate relaxation with things we enjoy doing. But sometimes these enjoyable activities are quite the opposite of relaxing. Consider the above examples. These have all been identified as relaxing by various clients with whom I've worked. And while I can imagine them (and myself) enjoying these activities, I also notice a similar aspect that might not feel particularly relaxing: physiological arousal.
That's a mouthful, physiological arousal.
It basically refers to how our bodies respond to certain situations and experiences. For example, your breathing gets shorter and faster when you exercise. When your heart beats stronger during an exciting moment, either on the screen or in real life. A thrilling story, a winning poker hand, even periods of dreaming involve physiological arousal.
So what does this have to do with relaxation?
To be relaxed is to be at a low level of arousal. Slower breathing and a measured heart rate are common characteristics of being relaxed, as well as being relatively free from distraction and emotional distress. If our intention is to be relaxed, it can be extremely difficult to do that if our bodies are doing the opposite. That is, physiological arousal and relaxation just don't mix.
Having fun and doing enjoyable activities are an important part of self-care, and the benefits from this kind of behavioral activation are not to be minimized. However, relaxation is a kind of skill beginning with an intention and ending with a practice of specific behaviors and interventions.
While relaxation can look like a variety of things, relaxation often results in:
Slower heart rate
Slower, calmer breathing
A focus on the present moment (as opposed to the past or future)
What sorts of activities tend to result in the above aspects of relaxation?
Some examples are meditation, deep breathing, and guided imagery. While these exercises tend to result in a state of relaxation, we can definitely expand what relaxation might look like. Knitting, coloring, journaling, listening to music, and yes even TV and movies can be relaxing. As long as the activity brings down your physiological arousal and brings your attention to the present moment, chances are you are relaxing.
If this seems pretty straight forward, then why am I making a big deal of it?
It’s simple: relaxing has become confused and muddled with mindlessness. It’s common for us to think that if we aren’t working, we must be relaxing. But during the course of working with clients, I’ve learned relaxation does not simply happen, and it is certainly not a passive experience.
Relaxation must be intentionally sought after and consistently practiced. All too often my clients are shocked when they come to understand their usual ways of relaxing may in fact be working against them. While relaxing activities can be enjoyable, not all enjoyable activities are relaxing.
So relax, and enjoy yourself…
There’s time for both, and you deserve both. When you decide it’s time to relax, then relax mindfully with intention.
If you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, or trauma/PTSD and finding it difficult to relax or destress, I’d love to assist you. Contact me for a complimentary consultation at 954-391-5305.
Counseling can help you understand what’s getting in the way and how to help yourself connect with a sense of calm, peace, and happiness. I provide counseling for adults in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Coral Springs, Florida.
I also provide online therapy via our secure telehealth platform for those who reside in the state of Florida.