Do You Need To Relax? Reducing Stress & AnxietyFeb 13, 2022
(originally published spring of 2018)
Why do adults often find it so difficult to relax? Perhaps that question is more rhetorical than anything at this point in my life. At age 40, I’m all too familiar with the many impediments and stumbling blocks a person might encounter on the journey toward relaxation. Worries about money and health and jobs make it difficult for us to catch our breath and get lost in the moment. Endless to-do lists and the jackhammer rhythm of ceaseless striving cloud our brains. We start to feel awkward if we aren’t moving and planning and doing. We start to feel suspiciously exposed and vulnerable if we aren’t “protecting” ourselves from life’s next big disaster by trying to predict it.
Much like happiness and playfulness and laughter, relaxation can become elusive as we grow older. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Last month I wrote about how it sometimes takes effort to cultivate joy in our daily living, and this month I’m taking that same approach toward the topic of relaxation. Ironically, relaxation might feel strange and even painful if we haven’t done it correctly in a while. If we’ve been too lost in anxiety and hectic living for months or years on end, we might have to re-train our bodies and minds in the art of decompression. But not to worry. Much like the motor skills used in riding a bike, our capacity to relax never really leaves us and can be summoned rather quickly.
Last year, in early February, my wife got sick. She doubled over in pain one morning, and a trip to the doctor led us to scans and blood tests and the discovery of a mass on her left ovary. Initially the doctor told us the growth was likely cancerous, and we spent a cloudy winter week worrying about the worst. Then, when the tumor was diagnosed as most likely benign, a simple surgery was supposed to do the trick. However, the simple surgery became complex, and the recovery from it became prolonged.
Amidst hospital stays and late-night worrying sessions, relaxation seemed lost; but my wife and I tried to find it anyway. We crawled over the dusty floors of our circumstances and peeked into the shadowy corners: surely some blessing was nearby. Or a few states away.
Instead of sitting around our house and staring out the frosty windows at another long Wisconsin winter, we took advantage of my wife’s medical leave and flew to Miami to visit friends. Maybe this was an opportunity from God, we said, so we seized the moment: we swam in the azure ocean waters and ate delectable Argentinian steaks and empanadas and strolled through the inspiring Wynwood Arts District. We put a pin in our Wisconsin worries and enjoyed the warm Florida air.
We enjoyed Miami so much, in fact, that we scheduled a repeat visit for this year. And then, four days before our scheduled flight, my wife lost her job: the one she was really enjoying, the one she had just transferred to, the one that carried our health insurance. That news wasn’t very relaxing—obviously—but we didn’t let it stop us from enjoying our scheduled time in the sun. Instead, we again tried to see the hand of God in perplexing circumstances. Maybe this was another gift—this extra time—we said. Maybe it was an opportunity to protract our vacation. So we did extend our stay in Florida this year, and as I write this, we are still in Miami: playing on the beach, swimming beneath the sun, exercising in the fresh air, strolling through the parks, and remembering that life isn’t all about the worries. The worries will always be there, but a person doesn’t have to “worry” about them, if that makes sense.
10 Quick Ways to Relax During Stressful Times
Change Your Scenery. A profound change of scenery can obviously make relaxation easier (something like, say, trading in the harsh landscape of a Wisconsin winter for the soft sands of Miami Beach), but a scenery change doesn’t have to be geographically immense to be beneficial. It might be something as simple as stepping out of your office for a break during the workday, or something like getting out of the house for an hour at night to enjoy a park or a coffee shop. If you’re feeling stale, switch your scenery for a bit. See how it renews and relaxes you.
Get Sunshine & Fresh Air. God created the heavens and the earth. He didn’t create offices and cars and malls and walls. Remember to step outside each day and breathe with God. Coming from Wisconsin, I know that this suggestion is more difficult to follow in some climates than it is in others, but even cold-weather days offer some activities (like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing), right?
Exercise. This is perhaps the quickest path I know to relaxation. It almost never fails to improve a bad mental or emotional state. Are you feeling overwhelmed by worry, anger, guilt, or sorrow? Sweat it out. Run it away. Put on those exercise shoes and go jog a mile or two or ten (or walk, hop on the elliptical, ride a bike, whatever). I guarantee you will feel better in an hour if you go exercise right now.
Get Lost in an Activity that Seems Frivolous. Not everything we do has to be about making money or losing weight or planning for our golden years. It’s okay to just walk on the beach and collect seashells. It’s okay to just strum the guitar or make a new playlist for your MP3 or organize your movie collection.
Get Lost in Someone Else’s Story. This can be done in person—through conversation—or it can be done via books and movies and videos on YouTube. Sometimes we can’t relax because we are too wrapped up in our own worries and problems, but the world is so much bigger and more complexly inspiring than that sort of miniscule reality. Step outside of yourself the next time you feel edgy and full of angst. See if that helps you to breathe a little easier.
Drown Your Sorrows (with a swim or a bath). This might sound silly, but it works for me. In the wintertime I take baths to relax, and in the summertime I go for a quick swim at the lake. There is something invigorating and renewing about this immersion in water; it can be like a quick rebirth when you need one.
Get Up from the Couch and Get Caught Up in the Moment. Too often when we are feeling stressed, we give in to the compulsion to sit and stew in our worries. We get lost in endless loops of thinking about what ails us (or what might ail us, or what ailed us at one point long ago). Instead of sitting and stewing, get up and get moving. Have a coffee, have a beer, go for a drive, try a new activity or a new restaurant—anything to get out of those thoughts about the past/future and into the present moment.
Go to Bed Earlier Than Usual/Get Up Later Than Usual. We often feel that we need to pack every minute of every day full of productive activities. But sometimes the most productive thing we can do for ourselves is watching an early evening movie in bed or sleeping an extra hour in the morning. Sleep deprivation causes a host of mental, physical, and emotional problems, so try to avoid it at all costs. Try to sneak an extra few minutes in bed when you can.
See Existence as Infinite. We worry about not accomplishing enough by the age of 30 or 40 or 50. We worry about time running out for us. Life can seem like a pitiful and futile race when death is always staring us in the face, but relaxation washes over us when we drink in the idea that existence is eternal. The next time you are worried that time is in short supply, remember these words from Jesus and RELAX:
John 8: 51 "Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death."
John 6:51 "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever."
Stop Trying to Justify Your Life/Happiness to Others. What makes you happy doesn’t necessarily make your siblings or your friends happy, and vice-versa. There is no objectively “correct” way to be happy, it is a very subjective process, different for each one of us. You just need to find the things that truly make you happy and do those things (as long as they don’t involve harming others). Some people live to please others (while making themselves miserable) well into their old age, so if you can find and own your own happiness by age 30 or 40 or 50, you are actually ahead of the curve.
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