The science of relaxation in a busy modern world

Skjermbilde 2018-07-01 kl. 13.06.54

 

Modern life can be stressful. It’s busy, and we’re often left feeling rushed or restless, just trying to get through each day, living for the weekend. If we can just make it until Friday… or this next deadline… then we’ll be free. Until Sunday night or the next laborious task is upon us, bringing with it a small pit of dread in our collective stomachs. It’s a feeling we’ve all experienced, whether it was a temporary blip during a hectic schedule or a day-in day-out affair. Even describing this pattern feels slightly dread-inducing, so I’m going to stop now!

My reason for writing this article is I myself, as a fairly neurotic individual, have had trouble relaxing. Stress has always been fairly overwhelming for me and manifests in very physical and sometimes painful ways, the latest being chronic tension headaches. I’m also a psychology graduate, so I’m always intrigued about the evidence behind why X is able to help people, how it can affect the mind, and consequentially how it can affect the body. In this case, how can we reduce stress, and how do these blissful self-care rituals work? I’m learning alongside you as I research and write. 🙂

We’ve all heard of the health-risks of stress. Simply put, we’ve been told that stress increases rates of death and illness, both mental and physical. However, stress only increases risk of death in those who view stress as being a harmful response. Otherwise, you’re no more likely to die, and have a lower risk of dying than those who report the lowest amounts of stress. It is the BELIEF that is important for your physical and mental wellbeing: changing your mind about stress alters how your body responds because the mind and body are connected. To learn more about this (and to verify to yourself that I’m not just making it up as I go!), I really recommend watching this game-changing TED talk by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, titled ‘How to make stress your friend’. In her talk, she explains how to reframe stress, envisioning how it can help you rather than hinder you, and the amazing benefits of doing this alongside the differing bodily reactions that occur.

Whilst mentally reframing stress is an amazing way to drastically lessen its harm, helping the mind and body relax is also able to offers a plethora of health benefits. A handful include lower blood pressure, improved digestion, better concentration and mood, higher quality of sleep (and obviously a much lower risk of the reported stress-related health issues).

Something I find amazing, and the reason why I’m including the science behind these tips and tricks (many of which you’ll have heard of before), is that when we *think* that what we’re doing is beneficial, we can reap benefits, regardless of whether the action in question is actually providing us said benefits. Again, our health is reliant on BELIEF. The term for this is the ‘placebo effect’. Wikipedia describes a placebo as ‘a substance or treatment of no intended therapeutic value. Common placebos include inert tablets, inert injections, sham surgery, and other procedures.’ Placebos work because our brain expects the placebo to benefit us, which in turn releases endorphins, which are chemicals similar to morphine in their ability to quell pain.

Amazingly, scientists have found that the placebo effect works even when we know what a placebo is, AND even when we know that what we’re doing/taking IS itself a placebo. Open-label placebos (sugar pills) were found to dramatically improve self-observed symptoms like nausea, pain, fatigue and IBS. Pretty crazy, right? (So don’t worry, I haven’t hindered any potential placebo-derived benefits from the following relaxation tips by clueing you in). I’m hoping that by enlightening you to the evidence behind the relaxation tips given, you’ll either reap benefits via the placebo effect or via the activity itself (and very possibly, both).

Anyhow, without further ado, I’ll introduce the tips themselves and then explain why/how they work. To play at a more advanced level, combine the tips for extra relaxation points!

DO try these at home:

1- Keep a gratitude journal

What’s a gratitude journal?

A gratitude journal is a way of keeping tabs on all of the good things that happened during your day. All too often we focus on the negativity around us. An evolutionary psychology approach would argue that this is only natural – the brain is programmed to remember negative aspects of life in order to attempt to prevent them from happening again, to protect us. However, ruminating over modern-day stressors such as the fact that Susan took all the credit for your good idea at work, or that your youngest child threw a horrendously embarrassing tantrum in the middle of the store is not beneficial to your wellbeing.

Your gratitude journal can be left beside your bed – try filling it in before you go to sleep at night and implement it into your routine this way. Try to think of 3 good things that happened during your day (however small). If you made the perfect cup of tea, that could be 1 grateful thought out of 3. Want more tips for making a gratitude journal?

Why would I try this?

The benefits of being a more grateful person are well-documented. Increasing the amount of gratitude you have improves both your mental and physical health (due to the fact that better mental health generally leads to better physical health). People who keep such journals have reported experiencing less toxic emotions such as envy and regret, better sleep, a reduction in aggression, and an increase in mental strength and self-esteem. Personally, I think keeping a daily gratitude journal is well worth the small amount of time it takes to write down a couple of points each day.

 2- Take more hot baths

This one’s pretty obvious. Just fill up the tub, lower yourself into the hot steamy water, and soak. You could add in a bath bomb or a soothing bubble bath if so inclined. Certain smells can enhance your relaxation experience – lavender is renowned for its relaxing qualities, alongside sandalwood and jasmine.

Why would I try this?

We all know bathing feels great – there’s nothing quite like the luxurious feeling of immersing yourself into a hot bath of water after a long day. One theory (quite wacky) of why this is so comforting is that warm baths remind us of being in the womb, protected, nourished and submerged in water.

But what you might not know is, bodily benefits can also be derived by bathing. Regular bathing has been found to reduce the likelihood of strokes, high blood pressure and hypertension. A steamy bath can also clear your sinuses, strengthen lung capacity, reduce pain and inflammation, calm the nervous system and improve blood circulation (which can aid digestion). A healthy body = a healthy mind.

3- Drink chamomile tea

What is it?

This mild tasting tea is made from one of the most ancient herbs on the planet. I personally enjoy the subtle floral taste – especially with a teaspoon of honey added for sweetness.

Why would I try this?

Camomile has been proven to not only improve sleep quality (and feeling well-rested will alleviate stress in itself!), but researchers have also discovered that even when tested alongside a placebo (a placebo which was unknown to both the lab-rats and researchers at the time of testing), there was a statistically significant reduction in anxiety level for those suffering from an anxiety disorder, suggesting that the camomile itself should take the credit!

Studies have found that camomile tea has more benefits than simply increased feelings of relaxation – camomile can improve the functioning of your immune system, improve your heart-health and offer some protection against cancer. As stated before, healthy body = healthy mind. All the more reason to pick up a box during your next supermarket sweep.

4- Practice mindfulness

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a way of bringing yourself into the here and now. It gives you (or rather, you give yourself) an opportunity to be still, calm, and present in whatever you’re doing. You don’t have to tangle your legs in the lotus position to accomplish mindfulness – it can be achieved during pretty much any activity. Focusing on the sights, smells, sensations, temperature, taste, sounds, and the breath all enable you to be truly in the now.

Why would I try this?

Being in the present moment can put the stresses we all experience in life into perspective, increasing your sense of wellbeing. Reported effects of mindfulness are (but not limited to): being less consumed by worry and regret, more self-esteem, stress relief, lowering the blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, better quality sleep.

Scientists have found that being mindful literally causes changes in brain structure and function – specifically in areas related to the regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness.

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar found that after only 8 weeks (30-40 minutes per day) of mindfulness, brain volume increased in the hippocampus (which enables us to store memories and control our emotions) and in the temporoparietal junction (which enables us to be empathetic and compassionate). Brain volume also decreased in an area of the brain. The amygdala shrunk (which is responsible for triggering our stress-response to perceived threats). Meaning that mindful practice lessened the participants’ stress-reactions to their environment.

If you’re not really sure where to start, I recommend trying mindfulness apps. My personal favourite is Headspace.

Supplementary ideas:

  • Limit tech time before bed and use ‘night mode’ or applications such as ‘f.lux’ in an evening to increase ambient light and aid in sleep.
  • Use ambience videos/white noise to aid in relaxation (e.g. rainymood.com, asoftmurmur.com)
  • Play upbeat music to lift your mood (the cheesier the better).
  • Keep your space tidy and your body well-groomed.

 

To sum up, there’s many little things we can do for ourselves to regain control of what we perceive to be stressful circumstances, or even just to treat ourselves to me-time. It just takes a bit of mental recalibration and self-care. This list is in no way, shape or form an exhaustive one – it might take you a little time and research to find the most effective method of relaxation for you. Or it may take booking a spa day (massage is another great way to relax). Totally your call.

Until next time,

Faye x

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