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.
Last month I wrote a list of 15 Tips for Joyful Living, and this month I will leave you with two more lists: one that offers 10 Quick Ways to Relax During Stressful Times and another that talks about 10 Anti-Relaxants to Avoid. I hope that you find something useful on each of them.
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.
10 Anti-Relaxants to Avoid
Feeling Rushed. I dislike alarms. I hate jumping out of bed and out the door without breakfast, devotion, and a cup of coffee. I despise battling crowds, beating traffic (which never really happens), and hurrying frantically from one errand or “necessary” engagement to the next. Sometimes we really do have to be at certain places at certain times (often for our jobs), but there are other times when we can simply cut back on the rush. On Sundays, for example, maybe devotion and journaling in bed is more spiritually healthy than primping and rushing to get to a formal church service. On Saturdays, for example, maybe you don’t need to complete a twelve-item to-do list.
Long Periods Without Exercise/Fresh Air. There were a few years when my every weekday went like this: seventy-five-minute commute to work, seven - eight hours at the office, then another 75-minute commute back home; little fresh air, little exercise, little opportunity for true relaxation. A day here or there without exercise or fresh air will happen in our busy lives, but try not to let multiple days of that nature pile upon one another. If they do, you will feel the effects, which won’t be very relaxing.
The Idea That You Are Your Job. Even if you love your job, you aren't your job. Don’t let career obsessions, ambitions, and disappointments take over your soul. Remember, you existed before professional life and you will exist after it. Remember, you have more to offer the world (and yourself) than professional life.
Giving in to Anger. Anger is a disturbing sensation, and unfortunately our first instinct is to feed it when we feel it. But we ought to do the opposite. We need to dump water on the flames of anger before they grow. We need to walk away from arguments before they escalate, and we need to escape any angry ruminations we harbor before they multiply and magnify inside our brains. When we are feeling angry, we need to get outside, exercise, pray, and then repeat if necessary. Have a beer, have a yell at the sky, whatever, just get rid of that anger.
Sleeplessness. At times our backward society tells us that there is something heroic about a lack of sleep; but do you feel like a hero when you aren’t properly rested? The body and mind need sleep to function properly, so fight sleeplessness like your well-being depends on it. I sometimes have problems with insomnia (I often wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep for hours), but I always have a book on hand to fill these otherwise anxiety-producing hours. Also, I’ve found that the following things can help to encourage my necessary hours of sleep: Yogi brand bedtime tea, a cardio activity like running during the day, a fan for white noise at night, limiting phone/computer/television screen time at night, limiting alcohol intake and/or cutting it off a couple of hours before bedtime, and making sure to have fun during the daytime so that I'm relaxed and feeling peaceful come nighttime.
Trying to Be Overly Responsible/Productive. Children don’t strive to be either of these things, and they usually seem pretty relaxed. Enough said.
Overanalyzing Your Own Thoughts/Behavior. This is one of those things that I mention because I often have problems with it. So how do I fight it? I try to get outside of my own head by any means necessary, often through exercise, talking to others, or getting lost in a creative activity like writing.
Spending Too Much Time in Places You Don’t Want to Be. This might refer to an office, a car, a social commitment, a climate, a church, a gym, etc. Even places that are “supposed” to be healthy for our bodies and souls can prevent us from relaxing if we are feeling trapped by them for some reason. Trust yourself to determine when you need to step away from a certain environment for a while.
The Idea That Your Best Days are Behind You. That’s an anxiety-producing idea, not a relaxing one, so dismiss it when it creeps up. No matter your age, your next year might be the most enjoyable of your life. Embrace that thought and you will sleep better at night.
A Day Without Laughter. Have you ever gone an entire day, or longer, without really laughing? That shouldn’t happen on a regular basis. It isn’t healthy. We need to encourage laughter in our lives. We need to find it by any means necessary: through joking with friends and family, through watching stupid comedy movies for the tenth time, through reading pretentious New Yorker cartoons and lowbrow memes on the internet, and through whatever else encourages a snicker, a chuckle, a guffaw, or a belly laugh.
“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.” Sidney Harris
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Jesus, Matthew 11:28
MICHAEL PRIEBE is the author of THE LOVELY GRIND: SPIRITUAL INSPIRATION FOR WORKDAYS (90 Devotions for Stress Relief & Personal Growth). Get the book here, and sign-up for The Lovely Grind's mailing list here to receive all of Michael's blog posts and newsletters.