by Terri Trespicio
There is a widely held misconception in our culture that relaxation is a reflex--meaning, if we can create the ideal environment, relaxation will just...happen.
Yet it's not so easy for many of us. We finally get a day off or take that vacation but instead of feeling relaxed, we feel restless. That's because relaxation is actually like a muscle: If you don't flex it regularly, it atrophies. Use it or lose it, as they say.
It's vacation season. But if you're like many people, even after you plop down into a beach chair, you find your brain running nonstop. It's like you can't find the "off" switch.
To get better at relaxing, you have to practice it more than once a year! You can get more out of your vacation, or even your weekend, by learning to work your relaxation muscle a little every day.
Here are three ways to flex and build your relaxation muscle:
1. Practice being here, not there
You can't relax while re-running scenes from yesterday or worrying about what will happen later. That's the opposite of relaxation! The practice of being present right here, in this moment, is key to finding a sense of calm and balance--and central to just about every mindfulness practice on the planet. It makes sense. After all, how can you enjoy a vacation (or quiet time with the kids, or a date with your partner) if you're not "there" to experience it?
One way to do this is with a short 5-minute mindfulness meditation--and don't worry too much about doing it "the right way." Simply sit quietly without distractions for five minutes, and focus on your breath. As soon as your mind starts to wander (it will) and thoughts pop up (they will), just note that it's happening, and draw your attention back to the here and now. Nothing is supposed to happen in these five minutes--the goal is to practice exercising control over your focus, so that you can put it where you want, and not just where it takes you.
2. Unplug every day (Yes, every day)
Sometimes flipping the off switch isn't enough: You've got to unplug the whole machine. Take a step back from the weird world of the internet, the constant ding of email, and the immediate accessibility of technology and give yourself some recharge time.
Try going off the grid for 30 minutes a day. If that seems impossible, start with 5 or 10 and see if you can build up to thirty. It might sound like a lot, but it isn't as bad as it seems. When was the last time you spent any amount of time with no phone, no computer, and no television? Not only will your brain get a much needed break, you're training yourself to assert your boundaries and be okay with letting go for brief periods of time.
If you haven't made unplugging a regular practice, it'll be difficult to do a tech detox while on vacation. You may experience more withdrawal than relaxation. Remind yourself that anything you fear you may be missing out on will be there as soon as you plug back in.
3. Put in some time with Mother Nature
A Stanford University study showed that time spent in nature can decrease a tendency to focus on the negative--particularly critical thoughts about yourself. And it's that kind of rumination that can poison even the best laid plans for vacation.
So let nature help: Make it a daily habit to get outside, be it during your lunch break, for a quick phone call, or even a walk after work.
Better yet, score triple points by pairing this exercise with your meditation and unplugging session! Get outside and take in the sights and sounds around you sans technology. Taking in something beautiful boosts your creativity and reduces your stress levels.
Before you know it, your relaxation muscle will be strong enough to support a truly restful reprieve--and you'll get more out of your downtime than you ever have before.