The Art and Science of Relaxation

In this article the author reviews some scientifically established negative effects of stress and benefits of relaxation. They also provide a quick and easy how to along with some useful links to get started.

The Dangers of Stress

Relaxation is an art, as important as it is for the functioning and wellbeing of people, it is largely overlooked. The dangers of stress to mental and physical wellbeing should not be news to anyone, but how seriously do most of us really consider this? Stress weakens our immune system, increases our blood pressure, causes erectile dysfunction, contributes to female infertility, deregulates our breathing and heart rate, and increases muscle tension.

Increased tension in the muscles leads to physical discomfort, pain, and so, psychological irritation. Prolonged physical tension also leads to faster aging and degeneration of the muscles, and who wants that?

If these physical symptoms of stress are not enough to motivate one to consider the necessity of relaxation more deeply, let us look at the mental consequences of stress.

Prolonged stress increases a person’s likelihood of developing a mental illness, research has shown this to be particularly true for anxiety and depressive disorders. Results from research conducted in the University of California showed that chronic stress causes long term structural and functional changes in the brain. It was found that chronic stress causes the under production of new brain cells and leads to shrinkage of areas in the brain responsible for emotional regulation and memory.

Unfortunately, many modern humans still don’t take heed of the dangers of stress, and our need to actively practice relaxation. We still condemn people for smoking cigarettes, it’s just so obviously bad for health. Yet those of us who work ourselves to the bone, often at the cost of our own health, are met with praise and reward for the stress we put ourselves under, not realizing, the extent to which it is damaging our lives.

The Concept of Relaxation

Martin Malchev / Alamy Stock Vector

The concept of relaxation is nothing new. In fact, it is very old. The yogis of ancient India have understood this profoundly powerful tool for thousands of years already, and it is an integral part of yogic practice. In Tai Chi and Qi Gong, the Chinese word ‘sung’ literally meaning ‘loose’ in one of the primary principles of practice. Once practicing relaxation techniques, you will surely notice yourself, that the relationship between body and mind is a bidirectional one. The relaxation of the mind communicates to the body that it is not under any sort of immediate threat, and results in the relaxation of the muscles, the dissipation of physical tension. Similarly, if one focuses first on relaxing the body, the mind will also slow down and become more at ease. Anybody who has had a professional massage should already know this to be true.

In contrast to the scientifically established negative effects of stress, research on the benefits of relaxation have shown that consistent, regular relaxation massively reduces mood disturbances and  increases immune function. It reduces the experience of chronic, non-malignant pain and psychological distress, while increasing all domains of quality of life as measured by the RAND-36 Health Survey.

The Modern Form of ‘Relaxation’

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Many people associate sitting down at the end of the day to watch movies or series with relaxation and recuperation. There seems nothing out of the ordinary with the sentence ‘sitting and relaxing in front of the TV’. It isn’t uncommon for us to watch something on Netflix in bed and simply wait until we are too exhausted to keep our eyes open to fall asleep. This is how many of us ‘relax’, but if we can agree on the definition of relaxation as being in a state free from tension and anxiety, we can agree that this is not real relaxation.

A survey of 471 people showed that for particularly busy individuals (who among us is not particularly busy?), watching tv was actually a source of guilt and feelings of failure. They viewed it as a form of procrastination, having the sense of having ‘given in’ rather than having spent time to productively relax and rejuvenate.  

Other studies show that depending on the content, watching tv increases cortisol levels, the hormone responsible for causing a stress response.  

When we fall to sleep in this manner, our minds are often still in a state of turmoil, we toss and turn as our subconscious tries to process everything that happened during the day or prepare us for the day to come. We wake up, still tired, check our phones and put the coffee on, entering again into the cycle of motion, the cycle where deep relaxation never takes place.

How Can I Really Relax?

This is not to try to persuade you to stop watching Netflix or to quit drinking coffee. Rather it is simply trying to provide the reasoning for why we might want to stop misconstruing these behaviours with relaxation. That is exactly what it isn’t. It would be much more useful and realistic to ask that you simply consider allotting a few moments a day, on as many days as you can, to deep relaxation.

So how do you do this?

Meditation

Lying down or sitting, close your eyes and simply observe your breathing. You might find that in the first few moments, your mind begins to race, and your agitation heightens. Work through it, take deep breaths if you need to, but stay still for now. Just follow your breath until you notice the noise of your thoughts decrease, thoughts will probably not totally disappear, but they will become less dominating as you focus on your breath.

Once you have achieved this, starting with your feet (or your head) relax one part of your body at a time.

If you find it difficult to maintain concentration, try doing it in synchronicity with your breath. Inhale and focus on a part of the body. Exhale and relax that part of the body.

Stretching & Self Massage

When we are full of tension, our muscles contract and become tight, doing a few stretches manually loosens the muscles and invokes a state of relaxation. Another way to manually manipulate the muscles into letting go, is massage. For those who have a healthy wallet, it can be very worth it to treat yourself to a professional massage. The standard price for this is usually around €50 for an hour, give or take a little.

However, don’t worry if you don’t have the money to spend, self­-massage works just as well, though is a bit more effort. Self-massage is a common thing to do amongst the Chinese, tai chi practicing population. It’s believed to help the flow of energy in the body by promoting blood circulation, bringing oxygen to different parts of the body. You can check out the links below (not sponsored) for a practical guide on how to do this.

A Personal Note on the Efficacy of Relaxation

As a young person, I suffered immensely from a wide array of mental disturbances. Chronic anxiety, depression, insomnia, and night terrors, just to name a few. The point that I began to study and practice these simple and profound techniques, was the point of departure for me from all (let’s say most) of the psychological suffering that burdened me. By no means was it an instant fix, though you can expect to feel good straight after practicing. It took years of healing the relationship between my body and mind, and being aware of when tension returned, training it as though it were a wild animal.

I never chose to undergo psychological therapy or treatment, though I absolutely recommend this for those who feel they need it. Fortunately, for me, the principles of meditation and relaxation, alongside physical practice, was enough to metamorphosize my life from something terrible, into something wonderful. Without wanting this to become too personal of a post, I would have felt as though I were withholding a secret if I did not at least mention it.

If you are interested and would like some recommendations (not sponsored) for learning more and getting started practicing, have a look at the links below!

Wishing everyone happy relaxation!

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Links

Guided Meditation (Yoga Nidra) https://soundcloud.com/sonicyoga/yoga-nidra-guided-meditation

In-depth Book on Ancient Yogic Techniques https://www.biharyoga.net/a-systematic-course-in-the-ancient-tantric-techniques-of-yoga-and-kriya.php

Dr. Yang Jwing Ming on Self-Massage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1V07beMpMI

References

  • Relaxation and Imagery for Chronic, Nonmalignant Pain: Effects on Pain Symptoms, Quality of Life, and Mental Health (Yi Ling (Elaine) Chen, MPsych (Clin) and Andrew J. P. Francis, PhD)
  • Mental and physical health outcomes following the Relaxation Response Resiliency Program (3RP) in a clinical practice setting (European Journal of Integrative Medicine)
  • Watching TV to Relieve Stress Can Make You Feel Like a Failure (Sifferlin, Alexandra) Time.com
  • Could Watching TV Be Good for You? Examining How Media Consumption Patterns Relate to Salivary Cortisol (Robin L. Nabi, Abby Prestin & Jiyeon So, 2016, Health Communication)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Erectile dysfunction: Symptoms and causes.http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/erectile-dysfunction/symptoms-causes/dxc-20314091
  • The Effects of Stress on Your Body (Healthline.com)

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Who We Are

The coming journal will be dedicated to delivering content of a scientific nature. We will be primarily focused on topics which may be useful in contributing to improved well being. We hope to make the vast sea of scientific research about the human mind, the human existence itself, more accessible to non academic readers. We hope to do this without compromising the integrity of science.

However, on another note, we also hope to deliver informative content pertaining to the 6000 year old body of philosophical and practical knowledge that comes from the East. Although not strictly scientific, we would like to give readers the accessibility to learn about eastern practices.

Such practices as meditation, yoga, Tai chi/Qi Gong have in many instances, taken the scientific community by storm. We would like to summarize and share what’s out there, while also providing an insight to the history of where these potent practices arose.

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