Each day we have experiences that are likely to produce anger, anxiety, disappointment and frustration. The result is physical stress: the strain on your body caused by its automatic reaction to the events that have caused you to be upset.
The sequences go like this: mental stresses are transmitted from the outer brain, the cerebral cortex, to a lower brain center, the hypothalamus, that controls our emotions.
The alarm goes out, and the body attempts to rally in defense, as if it were responding to an actual physical attack. Signals of emergency are relayed throughout the nervous system.
Adrenalin pumps into the bloodstream, and hormones spring into action. Hooding the body. The immediate results are the ones described above - increased blood pressure, irregular breathing, a racing pulse, a tightening of the neck and back muscles, and pressure to empty the bladder and bowels.
Ultimately, the wear and tear on your body's machinery begins to tell in physical complaints that have become commonplace.
"I can count on a headache almost every day. It's as if there is a vice around my head that tightens as the day goes on."
Doctors everywhere hear such laments by the hour. While they can arise for good medical reasons (and a thorough physical examination is a must), most often they have no physical basis. They are functional symptoms, not organic.
We will never be able to avoid entirely episodes that evoke tension. A rebellious child, an unreasonable boss, unmanageable bills - all these, and more, will remain psychological facts of life. We can reduce their cost to our well-being, and keep them from being translated into chronic physical complaints.
If you really want to unwind, you must begin to reverse the lifelong habit of reacting as if every predicament is a life-threatening emergency. Here are some practical exercises that will help.
Learn to recognize how different tension and relaxation really feel.
For many of us, the advice to relax may just as well be spoken in an unknown language. Because we are accustomed to living in a constant state of tension - always prepared to avoid threatening situations, to hurry before it is too late, or to expect the worst - we cannot actually tell the difference between a tense and a relaxed state.
To wean our bodies away from tension, we must start by recognizing how dissimilar tension and relaxation are. Here are two exercises to help you recognize what it really feels like to relax.
(1) Lie down in a position you find comfortable, your arms at your side. Raise your right hand at the wrist. (Just the hand, not the arm.) Now concentrate on how the top part of your forearm feels. That's tension. Next, let your hand go limp at your side again. The sensation in your arm now is relaxation.
You can try this exercise on other areas of your body as well. Tense the area, then relax it.
Start at your toes, and work up to your head, including your neck, jaw and eye muscles. If you are unable to feel the sensation of tension produced in a particular part of your body, touch the area with your hand, and feel how hard it is.
Or, try this approach:
(2) Sit quietly in a chair, and make a fist with your right hand. Notice the sensations in your forearm for the next few minutes the thickness and heaviness, the tension. Now stop making the fist without actually opening the hand, and notice the sensations in the muscles of the arm now. That's relaxation.
You can use this exercise in turn for other areas of your body, learning to tense, and release the body muscles like a wave from your head to your toe.
Practice these exercises until you recognize your body tensions for what they are. In everyday life, when you hunch your shoulders, clench your jaws, or tighten your fist, you do them routinely and unconsciously. Learn to identify such stress reactions when they occur.
Breathe your way to relaxation.
Breathing is more than a key to our physical survival. It is a bridge between our conscious awareness and our unconscious feelings; between our surface appearance and our hidden emotions. Stifled, shallow, or rapid breathing indicates inner turmoil.
The following exercises are designed to help you release the tensions that are harbored within. While doing them, you must give your full attention to the sensations and the sounds of your breathing. Put other thoughts out of your mind. Do these exercises at least twice a day.
Introduce relaxed breathing into your daily routine, practicing for several months if you are serious about changing the faulty habits of a lifetime.
(1) Lie on your back on a firm surface, head slightly raised on a pillow so that your spine is straight, knees are bent, and feet are on the floor about 20cm (eight inches) apart.
Put one hand on your stomach, the other on your chest. Draw deep breaths into the stomach and let the abdomen rise. The chest should hardly move at all.
At first this may seem difficult, but as you practice, it will soon become a comfortable way of relaxing your breathing. Give your entire attention to the feeling of the breath.
Concentrate on long and slow breaths - in through the nose, and out through the mouth, whispering "Haaaaah" - a sound like the wind - while the jaw, tongue, and mouth are dropped slightly open. Keep your mind on the sound and the sensation of breathing into your stomach. Do this for five or 10 minutes at a time.
(2) When this becomes easy, sigh deeply, as if in relief. Let all the air out of your lungs. Then simply permit the air to come back in. You do not have to force yourself to inhale, it will happen naturally. Do this 10 times.
(3) When it has become natural and pleasant to breathe into your stomach, practice this at odd moments during the day, taking three of four deep breaths, and putting all your attention into the pleasure of breathing. You can practice every time you begin to feel tense.
Teach your muscles to unsnarl.
When tense situations confront you, they are sure to be reflected almost immediately by a tightening of muscles throughout your body. The result is often a stiff neck or backache that hounds you by day, and prevents sound sleep at night.
Here is one approach to undoing the vice of muscular tension that takes hold at times of anxiety and threat. It involves focusing on each part of your body in turn, inhaling, and then imagining as you exhale that you are sending your breath to that part of your body.
(1) Sit in a comfortable chair, both feet on the floor uncrossed, hands lying relaxed in your lap. Close your eyes, fake a deep breath. Hold the breath for a moment: exhale slowly. Do this three times or more.
(2) Now breathe normally, in a comfortable, relaxed rhythm. Inhale. Send your breath down to your toes and relax them. Next, send your breath to the soles of your feet, and then to your ankles. Your feet are now fully relaxed. Inhale. Send your breath down to the muscles of your lower legs from your ankles to your knees, and feel them relax. First do your left leg, and then your right leg.
(3) Breathe very slowly and easily, and continue the exercise, sending your relaxing breaths to other parts of the body - your thighs, your buttocks, the muscles in and around the genital area, your stomach, your lower and upper back, your chest. Now send your breath down through your shoulders, along your arms, to your fingertips.
(4) Continue to inhale deeply, sending your breath in turn to your forehead; your cheeks, eyelids, and jaw muscles. Let your jaw drop. You will enjoy a comfortable feeling of letting go as you relax these muscles in your face and jaw. Let this feeling of deep relaxation spread to the muscles of your neck, throat and tongue.
Clear the clutter from your mind. Even while you engage in other activities - ride a bus, attend a class, talk to a friend - your mind may wander off in all directions, on to the day's grocery-shopping list, the doctor's appointment you have next Thursday, or the conversation you had this morning.
Such undisciplined mental activity causes tension, and prevents us from fully enjoying the experience at hand. The habit is extremely hard to break.
Here are some approaches you can use to stem the avalanche of thoughts and distractions that sap your energy and well-being.
(1) Arrange for 20 minutes of uninterrupted quiet, and sit comfortably with eyes closed. Chant aloud the word "calm" or any other one-syllable word until all you really hear is your own voice. Now let yourself chant mentally. Simply sit, "hearing" that mental repetition of the chant. If you start to daydream, or thoughts intrude, gently guide your attention back to the chant.
(2) Sometimes you will know that you are following the chant even though it has been transformed into a sensation other than sound - for example, a form or an image. It is as if you are following an elusive path, that always leads back to the simple word that blocks distractions. This helps to provide a clearing in the dense thicket of ideas and people that compete endlessly for your attention.
If you are a visual rather than verbal person, you may profit more from a form of meditation known as "one pointing."
(3) Twice a day, for 10 minutes at a time, contemplate some favorite object - a flower, or a leaf - without having any thoughts. If you find your attention straying, gently bring it back.
If you do the exercise regularly, don't be surprised to find that even a match- stick can inspire your interest and total attention.
A few minutes of such exercises, even if done during lunch hour at a desk, can provide more refreshment than a nap. The important thing is to practice daily, and to allow the experience to deepen over a period of months.
Learn to let go. For many of us, the thought of letting go, of losing control over even the most minute aspects of our lives is a frightening prospect. We feel that we must constantly manage, supervise, rehearse and control.
That is why we often have so much trouble falling asleep at night. We have not learned to let go of the day's events, or tomorrow's prospects. The result is a quicksand of insomnia, created by a tense mind and a taut body. To undo this habit, try this 30-second exercise a few times a day:
Sit on the edge of a straight wooden chair, your knees about 30cm (12 inches) apart, and your legs slanted forward at an angle greater than 90 degrees. As in all relaxation, it is important not to be distracted by tight clothing, and to set aside your watch and glasses. Sit up very straight, and then let yourself collapse like a rag doll, the head forward, the spine rounded, and with your hands on your knees.
Make sure you are comfortable, and then talk to yourself. "My right arm is heavy, my right arm is heavy." Repeat this for about 20 seconds while making mental contact with the arm from the armpit to the fingertips. Then make a fist, flex your arms: take a deep breath, open your eyes.
Repeat the procedure three or four times a day, and before bedtime. After you become skilled at making the right arm heavy, you can extend the exercise to your legs and other parts of the body.
In undertaking any of the exercises suggested here, you must keep one important rule in mind. Find a time to practice each day. Relaxation cannot be incidental to your life.