Thursday, August 29, 2013

Four Free Relaxation Exercises that Can Improve Your Mental Health

I never thought I would be writing these kinds of blog entries for Slightly Nutty. Next thing it will be ‘Ten herbs that can change your life’ and ‘Four questions to ask before choosing a therapist’. (I have also considered writing a joke book called How to Write a Best Selling Self-Help Book – I bet there are people out there who would consider buying it.)

But please bear in mind but I’m really addressing myself here. Because what I’ve noticed over the years – and only recently been able to put into effect as much as I want to – is that everything in our culture teaches that we shouldn’t use our own resources, and that you have to pay for things to make your life better.

Now this is often the case. Other people have skills that are different from ours, and to pay them for those skills can improve our lives while keeping the economy ticking over. A good physio can do wonders for a sore lower back. A skilled therapist provides the objectivity that we cannot bring to our own lives. I get all that, but I still think that we are subtly discouraged by the culture to do the simple things that can enhance quality of life, and that don’t cost a penny.

So here are four things you can do yourself, that don’t cost anything. Two can be done in front of TV, and two probably not. You probably know about them already but a reminder won’t do any harm.

Please note this isn’t medical advice – please see a physio if you have serious muscular or spinal problems.

This is a great thing to do in front of tele to ease sore, aching muscles. This Wikihowguide gives excellent suggestions – not just for obvious things like a sore neck but also massaging tummy, arms, feet and even your back if you have a basketball handy. It recommends showering first and using massage oil but you don’t need to prepare in this way to benefit.

There’s no reason to wait until your muscles are sore. If you do self-massage regularly, sore muscles would probably reduce over time.

Progressive relaxation
No, this isn’t time out for left-wingers. It basically involves tensing and relaxing one muscle at a time from the top of the head down to the toes. It is best to do this either sitting in a chair or lying down. In theory you could do it while sitting and watching tele, but listening to relaxing music will be more effective.

You can also do this just before going to sleep.

The extent of the exercise is up to you. The longer you take in tensing and relaxing each muscle, and the more muscles you include, the more effective the treatment will be – but it doesn’t have to be long, or involve every single muscle. There are plenty of relaxation CDs, and they can certainly help you let go, but the point is you don’t need a CD; you can run through the muscles yourself.

The trouble with progressive relaxation is that so many claims are attached to it, such as its ability to cure insomnia and anxiety. Rather than focusing on grand claims, what seem more relevant to me are its immediate benefits. It simply makes you feel more relaxed, and after doing it for a while you will get better at letting the muscles go. I always think of a floppy rag doll when I do this exercise, focusing on letting go of the muscle when I relax it.

Many people run a mile when they see the word meditation. They think that adopting it involves joining an ashram and sitting still for hours, or they go to a website that tells them they should meditate for at least ten minutes every night as well as every morning as a bare minimum. More than anything, I believe, we associate meditation with failure. We are not good enough for it; we fail before we even start because we know our brains are too chattery, too noisy.

The best way of approaching it is to clear your brain of preconceptions and the need for achievement. You are not going to move to a cave. You are just trying to change your brainwaves to achieve a greater mental serenity and stamina.

The important thing about meditation is that the trying – the early stages, which are so trying – are already doing some good, and that even five minutes in the morning has some benefit. Sure, once you start you may get completely enthused and build a little altar, or go on a retreat. But you don't have to do any of that. And even if you don’t keep it up, your brain will remember the degree of inner quietness you achieved. I have taken meditation up and dropped it again throughout my adult life, and every time I take it up again I don’t have to go back to the beginning. The learning from last time is still there.

Mindfulness meditation is a great form because it doesn’t just accept that the brain will chatter, or that you’ll lose concentration; it incorporates that assumption into the process. Every time your brain strays you simply bring it back to your breathing, and perhaps note mentally what’s happening. Through the mental chatter you continue to take note of the steady in and out of the breath. After a while the brain does tend to slow down, but the point is you will receive benefits before that. And there will be days when you slip into that effortlessly and days when the brain chatters throughout, and this is all okay.

Since getting back to mediation for all of a month, I’m already noting more stamina, more mental energy and calmness. I now meditate between five and ten minutes six days a week.

I meditate sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning against the side of my bed, with a blanket around my shoulders. To stop myself from putting it off, it’s the first thing I do when I get out of bed after going to the loo. If I turn my computer on first, my meditation practice probably won’t happen that day as once I’m in ‘doing’ mode, I’m a-goner.

Here is a simple, uncomplicated description of simple mindfulness meditation. 

Deep breathing
Deep breathing, sometimes called abdominal breathing, is great if you are prone to panic attacks because it retrains the breath so that even when you are nervous you have a greater sense of control. But I imagine it would be useful for any form of anxiety and especially useful before public speaking or a scary social event.

Practising deep breathing is great to do in front of teeve, because it’s a wonderful rationalisation for blobbing, something I love to do (another blog entry I am planning is – seriously – ten things to do in front of tele).

Here’s a good description of the process.

Hope you have fun with these exercises, and get something out of trying them.

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