Active relaxation and staying sane in a crazy world

My idea of active relaxation comes from the fitness industry’s concept of active rest. When you are trying to achieve your fitness goals, your body needs recovery time. Intense exercise tears muscle fibres which require time to heal so that muscles continue to work optimally, healthily and injury free. Without that rest, increased fitness and strength cannot occur. Active rest is best because it keeps the body moving without the intensity of heavy weights, endurance or prolonged impact. The body likes to move, so some light exercise as active rest is far better than no exercise at all. Walking the dog, a gentle cycle ride or swim, relaxing yoga or stretching session would all be examples of active rest. Active rest will aid recovery and make you stronger, faster and fitter as part of your fitness goals.

The Relaxation Response and Active Relaxation

Active relaxation works in the same way. You have goals and deadlines: prospecting calls, book-keeping, meetings, proposals, blog posts, social media, networking, your own well-being and that of your clients etc. as a solopreneur. And as a parent you have goals: kids to get ready for school, after school clubs, help with homework, sleepless nights, early mornings, your own well-being and that of your family etc. These things may give you great pleasure and they can also feel frustrating and stressful as well as drain you of vitality, enthusiasm and calm.

When you choose active relaxation, you are choosing activities that bring your body into the relaxation response so that your body can rest, digest and restore itself. Active relaxation benefits the body, mind and emotions at the same time. In the relaxation response, your body can heal and repair itself, your muscles can relax and release tension, your mind can become calm and creative and emotionally you are more receptive to play, humour, building relationships and a solution-focused, positive outlook on life. Can you see that achieving those goals and deadlines is much easier to do if your body is in the relaxation (rest, digest and restore) response and consistently achieving a state of relaxation?

Some Stress is Good, too Much makes you Cranky

Your body spends a lot of time every day in the stress response. From getting the kids to school on time to the work commute, or meeting deadlines for work and managing conflict over the TV remote control at home. It can all send adrenaline into your system for the majority of the day. And for the most part, that is great. It makes you productive, creative and effective in your personal and professional lives. It is designed to make you active, to step out into the world, be seen, take action and take ownership of your life.

But too much of that makes you cranky. Unrelenting stress without a break, drains your system and resilience. Have you noticed that when you are stressed you are less kind to yourself and others? That negative self-talk and lack of patience with others doesn’t feel good, does it? Its also difficult to find creative solutions to situations when you are stressed too much. And you are simply not operating at your best. When you notice these things happening, it is time for active relaxation.

Active Relaxation

So, what is active relaxation? In short, it is anything that brings you out of the stress response and into the relaxation response. In other words, rather than activities that promote prolonged release of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) you actively and consciously choose activities that shut down the release of these stress hormones. Consequently, you feel calmer, more energised, ready to take on whatever the next challenge is with more resilience, centred, balanced, grounded and in more control. These might include:

• Going for a walk (with or without the dog)
• Reading a book for pleasure
• Cooking with care and eating wholesome food
• Watching one episode of your favourite programme or a great movie
• Activities with friends (a meal, weekend break, spa day, walk, pub/ wine bar/ coffee shop)
• Writing- journaling, reflective, creative, poetic, narrative,
• Painting, drawing etc.
• Massage
• Yoga class or similar (Pilates, Awareness through Movement, Rolfing Movement Integration)
• Dance- partner classes, nightclub, conscious dance like Five Rhythms
• Comedy- a live show or something at home
• Centring
• Mindfulness
• Meditation

What would YOU choose to Actively Relax?

Only choose the ones that are actively relaxing for you. If the idea of a dance class stresses you out, it may not have the desired affect of calming you and feeling more resourced. However, to try some new things might have some surprising and beneficial effects. Some on this list are more dynamic than others. The active bit of active relaxation is more about being engaged with the activity you are doing, rather than how physically active you are.

It also speaks to your conscious choice and awareness throughout the activity. This is why long hours in front of the TV does not appear on the list- after a night on the sofa with the TV or on-line, you can feel more drained and less resourced. So, be careful and honest with the impact these activities have on your vitality, resourcefulness and resilience. Active relaxation, like active rest, is meant to give you more enthusiasm, strength, passion and endurance for your chosen life activities, be it parenting, running your own company, being CEO of a large organisation, writing books, running marathons or walking the dog.

The Cycles of Life

You are not a machine. Humans have rhythms and cycles that have us being more, or less, active, depending on the stage in the cycle we are in. Like years have seasons, humans have seasons too. We are perhaps more active and productive in our youth, having more energy, vitality and vigour. Later, that energy can change to be more reflective, calmer and peaceful. You may be very awake and raring to go first thing in the morning but at night want to turn in early. Or you might be the opposite way around? Alternatively, you might be most productive first thing and late at night and prefer a snooze in the middle of the day. What are your natural rhythms?

Every activity has a Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter

You go through rhythms and cycles in which you are preparing for an activity (Spring), which leads into being involved and engaged in it (Summer), and then to wind down as it approaches the end (Autumn). Active relaxation appears in the Winter phase- when the activity is done, you have stopped and you are in the midst of reflection, celebration, commiseration, learning and integration.

Winter is a little used phase. As a society, we are used to moving from activity to activity without the rest time in between. Valuable insights are lost if we miss out Winter. The gathering of experience, vitality and energy as well as assessing what the next direction will be, the intention, desired goals and resolve are all essential if we are to enter the next phase with any chance of success and enjoying the journey in the process.

Energy and Inspiration

Active relaxation gives you the recharge to have more energy for whatever you love to do in life. It is easy to keep going because that is what it seems everyone else is doing. But, eventually, you will burnout. You will have less energy for what you love. Perhaps you may stop loving the thing you once loved doing.  Not because you are bored of it, or out-grown it, but simply because you are not listening to your body. Your body needs recharging and care. You want to give it time to do that. Otherwise, it gets tired, low in energy, unwell, negative, depressed, uninspired, blah.

Life isn’t meant to feel that way. Sure, there might be brief periods you experience that flatness- because sometimes life is shit and challenging and you have nothing in the tank to push against it. But often, that is avoidable, by consciously choosing active relaxation as part of your day. You cannot carry on regardless. Recharging through active relaxation gives you all the energy you need for an active, vital and passion-filled life.

Over to You

I was inspired to write this blog because I have many clients who struggle with active relaxation. I have struggled with it for years myself and sometimes get the balance wrong. This drive to do more, be more, faster, harder and longer can ruin your enjoyment and passion for your work and life and can damage the relationships with your loved ones……… and even the relationship with yourself. It’s relatively easy to turn around. Explore that list of active relaxation opportunities and find out the ones that work best for you. That will depend on your natural rhythms and cycles as well as your commitments. Let me know how you get on and if you would like some assistance, get in touch.

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Are you fed up with being Strong?

Are you fed up with being “strong”?  Are you tired of the pressure you are under to perform without showing signs of losing composure?  Or having an emotional outburst?

Do you feel that it is your role to have the answers all the time?  If that expectation is hard to meet, is that difficult to admit to?

How are you at having to be right?  Is it a matter of great face and honour or are you OK with making mistakes?

Do you feel the need to be “happy” all the time and find it hard to admit that you might be below par or even struggling to cope?

Do you really thrive under stress, or are you struggling to manage, but afraid to share the truth for fear of what people might say- the boss, your partner, friends?

A meaning of “Strong”

Show your strength by being vulnerable & courageous in front of the right people

This out-dated notion of being “strong” needs a modern update.  Too many people are crumbling under the weight of carrying on regardless, pushing through at all costs, meeting ever-increasing expectations and ever-closer deadlines.  And all for the sake of being or appearing “strong”.  It is a relentless drive, that is driving many of us into poor physical, mental and emotional health and well-being.  “Strong” seems to mean something close to perfection.

So, rather than “strong” meaning perfection can we change that definition? I get the need for an external persona that makes it look like you have the answers, you’ve got it sorted and you can cope.  And I hope that is the case for you a lot of the time.  But is it reality?  And when it isn’t reality, do you have people to turn to so that you can talk it through, bounce ideas off, admit mistakes to, ask advice from and share your emotional pain when you are struggling?

This need to be “strong”, I believe, is stopping people feeling comfortable speaking to others about their struggles.  “It makes me look weak.”  “How will anyone respect me?”  “What will people think of me?” “Will I be able to hold on to my job?”  In silence, they battle on, often getting ground down by the weight of fear, doubt and worry.

Get Wise Counsel

My experience as a coach, and a Samaritans volunteer, is that speaking to someone about these very normal emotions is not only good for your health.  It also gets you to an answer much faster.  And to a much better answer than you might come up with otherwise.   You do not need to carry the burden alone.  But who can you talk to?

All great leaders have a team of people around them who they can talk to and lean into for support. (you can find out more about this in this Brian Tracy article).  Can we not learn from the cream of our business leaders?  We are all leaders.  If only leaders of our own lives.  And many of us will also lead families, children, work colleagues, groups, teams, businesses and countries.  Honest and open leadership starts with these personal qualities in our own day to day living.  Having people around you with whom you can confide makes you healthier physically, mentally and emotionally and allows you to be more effective in anything you do.

So, choose your team carefully.  Perhaps it is good friends you can talk to?  May be its your hairdresser or tennis coach or physio?  You could have a formal relationship with a mentor or coach or therapist.  Or may be you have people you work with you can confide in?  Whoever is in the team, you need to be able to trust them.  The more people, the more resources you have for advice, listening, support and guidance.  And with that comes more resilience and well-being that means you can bounce back faster when you experience setbacks, disappointment and failure.

Who makes you “strong”?

It is not rocket science, but it is startling how few people we actually talk to.  In our fast-paced society, we race from moment to moment and barely touch the surface of our own lives.  Let alone the lives of others.  We take less and less time to connect to people and so lack the depth of relationship we once enjoyed.  But it is this depth of relationship that allows us to feel safe enough to reveal our pain to others and be vulnerable.  As Brene Brown says, it takes courage to be vulnerable.  I think this is the real “strong”.  And to do that we want to build relationships over time that make it easier to be vulnerable when it serves us and others to be so.  All of that takes great courage.

Throughout my divorce process, I had people to whom I could talk about the conflicting emotions I was experiencing.  Some of those ears were professional (a counsellor), but others were family, friends, colleagues and even our beloved dog, Tigger.  In the pain I felt more resilient.  Amongst the confusion, I had people to tell me it was OK and normal to feel this way.  And when it got too much, I had people who would simply be with me.

I witness great courage in my coaching clients, who are vulnerable about their emotions and experiences.  Great insight, bonding and emotional healing come from this intimacy.  It is the human power of connection that helps to keep us whole when we are most in danger of being swallowed up by our pain, fear and loss.  It is not “strong” to suffer.  To remain in silence and isolation prolongs your suffering.

And others suffer as a consequence.  People notice.  And want to help.  Make no mistake.  So be brave.  Be “strong”.  And reach out to someone who cares enough about you to listen as you express your pain.  It is the greatest expression of their love.  A worthy gift to match your strength and vulnerability.

Over to You

What does “strong” mean to you?  How are you “strong”?  I’d love to know and get this discussion moving towards helping more people manage the stresses and pressures they face in daily life.  Our health and well-being demand it.  And if we can role-model this transparency to our children and grandchildren, to those we mentor, lead and guide, the bonds of human connection will be deeper and stronger.  And we will never need to be “strong” again in isolation and loneliness.  We will be vulnerable and courageous, share our wisdom and pain and show our strength in unity and camaraderie.

Pass it on

If you enjoyed this blog, please pass it on to someone you know.  Or share the social media posts.  Thank you.