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How to Actually Relax

by Megan Torres 4 months ago in how to · updated 4 months ago

(no really)

How to Actually Relax
Photo by Surface on Unsplash

Modern day wellness culture has marketed relaxation as a destination when actually…it’s a feeling. “Relaxed” isn’t a solid state of being, it fluctuates. That said, who doesn’t want to feel more relaxed, more frequently? Below are some tools to help you interact with your body if you’d like to reduce symptoms of stress and increase relaxation.

"Trauma is Stored In the Body"

Most therapists will tell you that trauma is stored in the body. Okay, but what does that mean? It means that our bodies act as a sponge for the direct and indirect trauma it experiences. Our brains work overtime to make sense of trauma. (I define trauma simply as a harmful and unexpected experience that never should have happened to you but did.) It takes tremendous work to attempt to make sense of traumatic experiences and your body is negatively impacted by the stress chemicals that are released.

It would be awesome if our bodies were only affected by specific triggers, but it’s much more complicated than that. Stress triggers can be subconscious which means for many, it’s unlikely to be able to identify them at all. It’s not always that your boss communicating that no one on the team thinks you’re approachable because you don’t smile enough (oddly specific – because it’s true). Sometimes it’s less obvious - a scent or time of day or a sudden change in temperature etc. So what’s a stressed out human to do?

Use Sensation Words to Explore “Exceptions”

Therapists, self-included, are guilty of teaching clients to track negative symptoms. We tell you to notice things like hunched shoulders, tight muscles, teeth grinding, stomach problems etc. But what happens when those symptoms are your baseline? How do you notice what’s normal? Some of my clients living with depression often share that they can’t remember the last time they were happy. They may have not have suicidal thoughts, they might not have ever engaged in self harm, but happiness? We don’t know her. When apathy and “existing” is the baseline, it can be incredibly difficult to tell whether the symptoms you’re experiencing are abnormal when they are YOUR normal. It's the same with worry and anxiety.

Using sensation words instead of just tracking negative symptoms can be helpful. Some sensation word examples to get you started: flowy, calm, light, “easy”, slow, still, empty, open etc. As I write this, I’m in the Yucatan looking at the ocean (a really long story that I'll definitely tell). My stomach feels soft. My shoulders are hunched and tight because I’m anxious about how this piece will be received. But my exceptions are that my stomach feels open (its typically clenched). My breathing is deep-(ish) (its typically more shallow when I'm tense). My eyes are soft. See? Just like that. Even if you are embodying your typical manifestations of worry, if there is just one exception, it matters, and you can track it when you notice it. Learning your “exceptions” helps to increase your body awareness. When you are fluent in body awareness THEN you can work on things like progressive muscle relaxation, tracking triggers and challenging unhelpful thoughts through therapy interventions like the ever-popular CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).

The Exercise

Make a list of sensation words. When your body is at rest, take a minute to record what’s happening like I did above. Do a few timed check ins throughout the day, at specific times of the day. Lunchtime, your first bathroom break, before bed, when you first wake up, doesn’t matter. Sit or stand. Whatever feels right. Ask yourself, How does my head feel? My stomach? What’s going on with my mouth and jaw? My eyes? Then write it down or text it to yourself. My tongue felt loose. My stomach felt relaxed during the training break. My words flowed easily during the client call even though my stomach felt like it normally does. If you do this for at least two weeks, you might start to notice some exceptions to how your body normally feels throughout the day. Exceptions for people experiencing physical symptoms of stress are notoriously easier to notice because they are infrequent and not the norm.

I'm Megan and I hope this helps. If you made it this far thank you for supporting my very first Vocal article. If you liked this article, feel free to give me a follow here, and over on IG @trustmeimasocialworker. Let me know in the comments if there are other mental health topics you’d like me to talk about! (And relax that jaw, therapist orders)

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Megan Torres

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