Stress is an inevitable part of life. We all struggle sometimes, whether it be at work, at school, or at home; whether it be dealing with health issues, family crises, or simply finding our way in a complicated world. Feeling stressed out takes a toll on our physical and emotional health. We cannot fool our bodies and minds. When we keep going in constant “Stress Mode”, we can experience physical consequences such as headaches and prolonged illnesses. We are even more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. A few minutes of relaxation daily in the form of intentionally taking a break from our stressors can recharge us and promote our wellbeing.
The dictionary definition for relaxation is “the state of being free from tension and anxiety.” That freedom sounds pretty appealing to me – appealing enough to look for ways that I can experience it on a more regular basis. I may not know all the best ways for me to relax, but I can begin by identifying the things I do NOT find relaxing. For example, engaging in social media can be entertaining, distracting and certainly a way to connect with others from the past or people that I do not see on a regular basis. But, for me, looking at social media also invites unhealthy comparisons and judgments based on glimpses into others’ lives. All in all, I do not come away from social media feeling very relaxed at all.
Once we start to recognize activities we do not find relaxing (I have also added cleaning, shopping and roller coasters to the list), we have some choices to make with what free time we have. This year, our family’s summer schedule means rising early most weekend mornings and dropping teenagers off at work. After one early morning drop off, with the sun rising bright and warm and nature coming to life, I wrestled between taking time to relax and read outdoors or getting started on the Endless List of Things to Do. I decided to fill the car up at a gas station and then went inside for a newspaper, donuts and coffee so I could go home and enjoy the beautiful weather. A very new and very overwhelmed employee accidentally charged my gasoline to another patron. After I waited several minutes while a manager sorted it all out, they ended up giving me my items for free. Now, I am pretty convinced this was the universe’s way of rewarding me for choosing relaxation.
Although we may thing otherwise, the time we spend working at our jobs typically does not qualify as relaxation. My dad worked for years as an office supply salesman, and he tried to tell my mom that working was how he relaxed. I know he truly loved repairing cash registers, interacting with customers and seeing how his work could help the business of a small town cafe or bookstore. But it was still work, complete with obligations, responsibilities and pressures. Eventually, my parents figured out that they both enjoyed camping and it could give my dad that needed break from the daily routine. At the campsite, me dad still managed to “work” a little by repairing fishing poles or gathering wood to build the biggest campfire. Yet he was also in nature, with his family, and away from the daily worries of the job that demanded so much of his time and energy.
It certainly is a lot easier to relax with a white sandy beach, swaying palm trees and crystal-clear blue waves within sight. But we all have activities that we enjoy, free from tension and anxiety, and we can find ways to incorporate them into our daily lives. It might be a walk with your dog. It might be kayaking on the lake. It might be stretching or dancing or gardening or running. Some days, it might have to be deep breathing and visualizing that tropical paradise while waiting in a long line or sitting in traffic.
In order to truly benefit from your chosen relaxation time, it helps to keep in mind the phrase “let go”. Let go of the belief that you can force someone else to change. Let go of the responsibility you place upon yourself to make someone else happy. Let go of the idea that you can make your life perfect by crossing that last item off your list. Let go of the false hope that worrying enough will make an outcome go your way. Immerse yourself in something that has nothing to do with your worries. You will not make stress disappear by choosing to relax more, but you will find yourself a little better equipped to handle the stressors that make their way into your life.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.