Relaxation: it sounds simple, but are we doing it wrong?

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Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Set peace of mind as your highest goal, and organize your life around it.

~ Brian Tracy

At the end of a long day, we just want to relax, right? We want to “decompress”, “unwind”, and “turn off our brains” to escape the stress of our lives.

For many of us, this takes the form of watching TV.

I’ve been there. Whether it was watching Game of Thrones, Braveheart for the 500th time, or the Winnipeg Jets, I have spent more than my fair share of time in front of a TV.

But, thinking back on those countless hours, I can’t help but wonder whether it was worth it. Did it help me to relax? Did it add value to my life?

I’m not so sure, which is why I’m asking this question now: what was I looking for when I wanted to relax?

In retrospect, relaxation to me meant distracting myself from the stress I felt from school, work, relationships, or anything else going on.

For you, your distraction of choice might not be TV. Maybe it’s perusing the Internet, scrolling through social media, playing video games, reading novels, cleaning your house, or baking.

But, whatever it is you do to “relax”, you might not be getting out of it what you really need.

Relaxation as stress relief

Stress is a natural response to a situation we perceive as threatening. It can be caused by a range of experiences, from rush-hour traffic to the death of a loved one. It is a physiological response that floods the body with hormones that prepare it to fight or flee (see here).

Experienced chronically, stress can have serious physical and psychological consequences (see here), which is why it’s important to employ strategies to reduce daily stress.

We typically try to deal with stress through relaxation. But, did you know there are two different types of relaxation?

There is passive relaxation and active relaxation.

Passive relaxation involves activities like watching TV and scrolling through social media. When we do these activities, while our bodies might be relaxing, we don’t notice or are not in control of the body’s stress response. In other words, passive relaxation doesn’t teach us how to reduce or stop our stress response.

Passive relaxation might distract us from our stress for a time, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. As soon as we’re not distracted, the stress often returns.

Active relaxation includes activities that have been shown to engage the relaxation response, which is a state of profound rest that is the opposite of the stress response (see here). These activities also teach you how to actively manage stress. But, as you may have guessed from the name, these take a bit of effort.

Active relaxation includes activities like meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation (see here and here). These activities allow us to gain a certain level of control over our stress response, which is important if we want to reduce the amount of stress we feel instead of just ignoring it.

Another way of dealing with stress is to re-frame the situations that causes us stress. Because stress is caused by a perceived threat, it’s possible to change our mindset toward these situations to reduce the stress we feel.

For example, studies have shown that choosing to perceive a stressful situation (like an exam) as demanding rather than dire can not only reduce the stress we feel toward the situation, it can also improve our performance and productivity (see here).

Conclusion

I have spent thousands of hours distracting myself with TV shows, movies, and video games in a futile attempt to rid myself of stress. I see now that this is not the best path.

Today, I try to meditate, write, and exercise daily. These activities help to reduce the stress I feel, but they don’t stop the stress from happening.

This is why I also spend time thinking about how I frame situations I’m stressed about. This can help to reduce or even stop the stress I feel in certain situations.

Recently, I was stressed out because my productivity at work was unusually low. At first, I started to tell myself stories about how I was a failure and I didn’t deserve my job. After feeling terrible about myself for a day or so, I got curious about why I was so unproductive. I soon realized that my overly cluttered inbox was causing me stress, which in turn was diminishing my productivity.

I was able to re-frame the situation from something being wrong with ME to there being a problem that I can fix. This immediately helped to reduce the stress I felt.

So, the next time you’re stressed out and you want to relax, remember that you might have more effective options than watching TV or scrolling through social media.

Try meditation. Focus on your breath. Do yoga. Re-frame your situation.

Instead of distracting you from your stress, these options will help to reduce the stress you actually feel.

And, in the end, isn’t that what relaxing should be all about?

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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