Relax Your Way to Stress Management

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John G. Carlson, PhD

Just relax! We hear that a lot in this stressful world of ours. As for why we should relax, of course, it feels good-but most things in that category are generally illegal, immoral, or ... well, you know. Fortunately, relaxation is one major exception to that rule. Why relax? It's a healthy habit and it feels good.

Relaxation is not just sleeping. As I say to my clients, if sleeping were enough no one would complain about stress in their lives. Getting enough sleep is, of course, essential to wellness, but something else is needed. In recent years, health psychologists have come to realize that the something else is what we might call, "Wakeful Relaxation"--the art of quieting oneself while staying awake. But when, and how?

There are many ways to wakeful relaxation, most of them simple, some more systematic. These ways include just sitting quietly, listening to music or the sound of the waves, or deliberately relaxing muscles, focusing on imagery, doing biofeedback in a clinic, or learning yoga or meditation.

Here is a version of a simple meditation technique based on an ancient yoga-based meditation:

  1. Find a quiet place to sit, get comfortable, and close your eyes.
  2. Take a deep breath and allow your body to relax as best you can. Try not to move a lot, but if you need to for comfort (or need to scratch), do so.
  3. After a few moments, begin a "mantra"; this is a word that you will say to yourself repeatedly. Try: "One," or "Gentle," or the Sanscdt, 'Sha-rem," or "Ohm"-any one- or two-syllable word will do. Just think your mantra over and over to yourself
  4. Continue for about 15-20 minutes, once or twice a day. (Before meals is best--such as, early morning and late afternoon.)

The purpose of the mantra is to help you clear your mind and achieve a quiet, "thoughtless" state. This is easier said than done. Thinking of more things than you imagined possible during meditation is natural, especially as you first begin to practice. When you find yourself thinking of something else, just return to the mantra gently and continue.

The effects of meditation are powerful--first in a renewed sense of well being and energy then, as you become more practiced, in other ways that are personal, and perhaps evten spiritual. And from the body's standpoint, research shows that it is a wonderful way to defuse physiological arousal due to stress.

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