The Art and Science of Relaxation

Peace and quiet

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by Jayaram V

Source: This essay was originally published in the book “Think Success, Essays on Self-help” by Jayaram V under the title, “The Art and Science of Relaxation," and reproduced with publisher's permission.

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Summary: The Art and Science of Relaxation contains 23 strategies to resolve the problem of stress and experience peace and happiness

What is your general state of mind during the day? Do you feel relaxed most of the time, or do you suffer from money, health or family related worries that wear you down? Do you suffer from frequent headaches, indigestion, muscle pain, or other physical ailments due to worry and anxiety?

If your answers to these questions are in affirmative, perhaps you are suffering from stress and need to relax. Some stress is normal and even necessary to stay healthy and active. Many common tasks and situations, such as walking in a crowded place, meeting strangers, driving through a busy lane, or giving a public speech can increase your stress. You also experience it when your desires are thwarted, when you step out of your comfort zone, or when you suffer from negative feelings and emotions, such as fear, anger and guilt.

 Nowadays stressful situations are so common and frequent that many people do not even know that they are stressed. Most people come to know about it when they undergo during routine medical checkups or when they experience other related symptoms such as indigestion, headaches, back pain, heartburn or sleeplessness, and seek medical help.

Long-term strategies to deal with stress

When stress becomes unmanageable and persistent, one should take the problem seriously and look for immediate solutions. Stress is a silent killer. It may cause considerable damage before you even realize it, since it induces in the body the release of harmful chemicals into the blood stream, which interfere with its normal functions and overtime may damage the organs, including the heart, the kidneys, the liver, the eyes and the digestive system. Therefore, one should take the problem of stress seriously and seek timely treatment, before it causes grievous damage to the mind and body.

If you are prone to stress, and even if you think that it is not a major health issue, you should still consult your doctor and seek medical advice, because it can often result from hidden health causes, which can be diagnosed only after detailed medical tests. Normal stress can be reduced or managed within tolerable limits by healthy lifestyle choices, self-discipline, relaxation techniques, and clean habits.

The following suggestions are meant to help you on a long term basis to deal with stressful situations and keep your stress within limits. They are not a substitute for medical advice. If you suspect that you suffer from chronic stress, or stress related problems, you should consult your physicians and seek immediate medical advice.

1. Make your health a top priority item in your list of tasks

A healthy body copes with normal stress better than an unhealthy one. Many people continue to overwork and overexert themselves, even if they are not physically or mentally well. If you are one of those who ignore their health for any reason, you have to decide what is important in your life and whether you can afford to do it habitually. If you are not in good health, professional or career success is not going to compensate you for it. For your happiness and wellbeing, you should give priority to your health and take preventive measures. You should stay physically and mentally fit by doing whatever that is within your control.

2. Give your body adequate rest

Your body is vulnerable to wear and tear. When you are engaged in serious physical and mental work, you need to rest in between and give yourself time to relax and recuperate. Prolonged strenuous work can increase your stress and reduce your immunity levels, and thereby expose you to several physical ailments. Since in a work environment you are bound to rules and cannot take frequent breaks, you have to learn to relax naturally while doing your job. You can do it by staying in the present, paying attention to your surroundings, and taking deep breaths. It is also important to sleep at least eight hours every day to let your body heal and recharge.

3. Stay with the moment

During weekends, sometimes a friend of mine goes on a long drive into the countryside. One day his car GPS failed and he lost his way in a desolate place where he could not see even a single human being. He said that he was really exhausted, confused, worried, and hungry. Then he came across an old, rusted, iron bridge with a river flowing beneath. He stopped the car and stepped out of it to watch the river and the scenery on either side. The desolate road, green hills in a distance, the gently flowing water, cornfields, cool breeze, and calm surroundings filled him with indescribable peace, and he felt instantly uplifted and relaxed as if his tiredness had flown away with the flowing river and the passing breeze. What happened to him on that bridge was that he transported himself from his mental daze to the present moment and found a connection with the reality. It is a simple technique which many people use to stay in control.

For a busy person the present moment can be very healing if he knows how to return to it in tense moments and become aware of it. Whenever you feel tensed up, just take a few deep breaths and look around or stretch your body. You will feel immediate relief. It is like lifting a pot of boiling water from the stove for a short time and putting it back. If used intelligently, it can work for you like a thermostat to keep your stress under control. Your mind is fickle by nature and becomes easily distracted by one thing or the other. In normal circumstances you can live with it. However, if you have problems and worries or if you are anxious about the outcome of certain situations that are troubling you, it may increase your stress and make you restless, as you keep thinking about them or your future. You can address this problem by training your mind to stay with the moment and become mindful of your immediate surroundings. You can practice present moment awareness by listening to sounds, observing the objects around you, focusing upon your breath or the tasks you perform, or feeling the sensations in your body.

4. Organize your work and your life

Some people are very meticulous and try to organize everything they deal with, while some are not so serious. When CD's and DVD's were newly introduced, I used them to back up a lot of information, but forgot to label the discs or keep a list of all the files I stored in each disc. It resulted in many problems, as each time I had to spend considerable time looking for specific information. In a few cases, the files I thought I backed up were not found while some I backed up twice. Finally, I had to spend a whole day to reorganize them.

Life can get very stressful if you are not in the habit of organizing your information and resources. Organizing is an important aspect of life, which many do not realize until they grow up. If you are a disciplined person, you know its value in your personal and professional life. Planning and organization go together. By organizing your life and activities, you can avoid many problems and mistakes. Organizing means you should have a place for everything, and keep everything in its place, and planning means you should know in advance what to do and when by making the best use of your resources. Both provide order and structure to your thinking and actions, and bring predictability, peace, and regularity into your life, besides saving you from a lot of avoidable stress caused by confusion, negligence, and frequent delays in completing your tasks.

5. Stay realistic and rational

You should not underestimate the problems that you may face in the long journey of your life. You have to be ready for the unexpected twists and turns. In recent times we have seen that in countries like Japan and Russia, people who thought that they would have a comfortable retirement life had to return to work when they had lost their savings in economic downturns. I heard of a person who went on a hike in a desert and lost his way. He thought that he would return to his camp in a few hours, but had to be rescued by others after a few days of search. Unrealistic and irrational beliefs and improper planning can lead to unforeseen problems, which in turn can cause severe stress. You must plan for contingencies, without assuming that there will be no problems and obstacles in completing your tasks. If you do not keep backup plans, things can get nasty. When you make decisions, set goals, draw plans or use your resources, you must be realistic and balanced. If you have a problem, you should not live in denial or deceive yourself with the hope that it will just go away without any action or response from your side. You should think clearly, without any illusions, and find solutions that can work. Imagine what happens when you have a health issue, and instead going to the doctor you decide to go to an astrologer and act according to his advice.

6. Practice traditional relaxation techniques

A young woman, who was an investment broker, lost in succession first her dear mother to cancer, her boyfriend to her own friend, and her dog in an accident. She was in severe pain and wanted to commit suicide. A colleague of her advised her to go on vacation to India, and visit an ashram she knew. She went to India planning to stay there for two weeks, but she stayed back for about six months and learned yoga under the guidance of an expert teacher. The practice of yoga and meditation and changes in her food habits helped her to cope with her sorrow and recover fully. With renewed enthusiasm, she returned to her home town to continue her journey and appreciate the opportunities life had given to her to learn lessons from the joys and sorrows of life. Many people vouch that traditional methods of healing such as mindfulness, yoga postures, acupuncture, meditation, regulated breathing, visualization, etc., can be effective to calm the mind and body and reduce stress. You do not have to go to India, or China to practice them. You can learn about them by reading books, searching the Internet, or joining a training class. They are inexpensive, easy to practice, and can be easily incorporated into your daily schedule.

7. Flow with the life

One of the techniques survival specialists recommend for situations when a person is lost in a forest or a difficult terrain is to try to find a river or a stream and follow its course. It is because somewhere along the course you will most likely find a human settlement, fishermen, or a boat, and you will have greater chances of survival. If you do not find them, at least you will have a better supply of food and water. In life also you can follow a similar principle. Your chances of survival and success increase greatly if you learn to flow with life. Instead of fighting and resisting what life has to offer you, sometimes it is better to surrender and let life happen, letting go of things and relaxing, with the conviction that you can deal with situations as they arise. This approach is especially helpful when nothing in your life seems to be working, and you face a lot of uncertainty about the outcome of your actions or the next turn of events.

It is not that you should be passive or indifferent. You must do everything possible to control your life and pursue your goals to the best of your ability. However, when you have done everything you could and yet could not achieve much progress, you must allow life to unfold itself and show you its hidden intent. Spiritual people will tell you that difficulties and problems in life arise to teach you important lessons and prepare you for inner perfection. Therefore, when you are unable to change your life or circumstances, or when everything seems to be going against you, you let your destiny unfold itself. You cannot change the world, but you can change your thinking or your methods to align with it. If you are pushing yourself too much but accomplishing little, it means you are out of tune with yourself or your destiny. In such circumstances, you must pause for some time and see how you can change the situation to your advantage.

8. Manage your expectations

I have a friend who is exceptionally talented and intelligent, but he is never happy because he thinks that he has not achieved even half of what his father had achieved. The reason for my friend's perennial unhappiness is his expectations to exceed his father's achievements, without realizing that his father achieved it over a span of nearly fifty years in a less competitive world while my friend is not even 30 years of age and has to live in a tougher world. There is a saying that expectations reduce joy. Your expectations influence the quality, course and the direction of your life. They also influence your thinking and attitude, and your health. You feel empowered when you achieve them, but experience a range of negative emotions when you do not, which may persist and cause you stress, depending upon how you interpret your failure and absorb the shocks.

You do not have control over all situations in your life. Hence, you always the run the risk of not meeting your expectations and suffering from the disturbances they cause, unless you develop coping strategies and a healthy mental attitude. Your life is shaped by not only your own expectations but also the expectations of others, such as your family, friends, society, government, the institutions you join or work for, and even God. Managing the expectations of others is even more difficult, and it is where most people experience stress and unhappiness, since they have to manage the emotions and expectations of others, apart from their own. You can address this problem partially by having clarity about what others can expect from you and what you can expect from them by having discussions and negotiations, and by asking questions and seeking clarifications.

9. Change your circumstances

Do you know why so many people are eager to migrate to the USA, sometimes risking their own lives? Many outside the USA do not know that for a first generation immigrant life in the USA can get very tough. Yet, many people want to migrate, by even illegal means, because they have no control over the conditions that exist in the countries from where they come. One cannot say whether they are making the right choice, because when you leave a country you also leave half of your soul and heart there. However, sometimes it is wiser to change your life and circumstances by leaving or avoiding the conditions over which you do n0t have much control. For example, if you live far away from your workplace and travel long hours every day, you can plan to relocate to a new location, which is closer to it or find a job near your home. If you live in a noisy neighborhood and unable to sleep properly, you can shift to a quieter area. If your job is creating a lot of stress, you can either negotiate with your employer for suitable changes in your working conditions or explore any alternatives. Such actions give you a sense of control and relief from causes, which produce stress and unhappiness.

10. Practice Detachment

If you are an emotional person, who is prone to develop attachments you may not like the idea of detachment. When my daughter wanted a dog in the house, I was reluctant because I thought I would form an attachment with him, and someday we all would have to feel the pain of separation. The dog is now so much part of our lives that whenever we plan to go on vacation, or away from home, we find it hard to leave him in the dog-care. This is just a simple example of the various attachments we develop in our lives, as we repeatedly interact with things and people. Every attachment you form weighs you down with duties and responsibilities, and limits your freedom and choices. Every attachment is like the baggage that you carry in a journey. Having many attachments means you have to carry more weight, which ultimately wears you down. Hence, most religions put emphasis on the practice of detachment to teach you moderation and self-control and prepare you for peace and inner freedom.

Detachment does not mean that you should abandon your duties and responsibilities, and become a monk. It means that you should remain mentally free from the things you desire or seek, or when you enjoy them. With detachment, you can control your mental and emotional dependence upon things and the need for fulfillment, which are responsible for many mental and emotional problems. It also means you should not be unduly worried about the results of your actions, but focus upon your tasks and duties, and do your best without anxiety and expectations. When you are mentally detached, you will have peace, equanimity, stability, and clarity in your thinking and purpose.

11. Avoid using drugs or medicines for relaxation

Studies show that using drugs, alcohol, and medicines for sleep and relaxation prove to be very harmful in the long run. It is like hiding behind a tiger to find protection from a wolf. After the tiger is done with the wolf, you will end up facing a very disturbed and aggressive tiger. Unless you are in severe and chronic pain with no better alternative, you should try to avoid it. Drugs, alcohol, and sleep inducing medicines do not address the real problems, but only provide a temporary escape from them. They give you an illusion of rest and relaxation, while they keep harming your mind and body, and create mental dependence. The best way to get a good night sleep any day is by doing hard physical labor or exercise. You can also practice yoga and meditation, instead of using drugs and sleep medicines.

12. Find time for recreation

The world would be a better place if we shut down all the radio and television channels in the world. People will then use their time for more productive work, and you will find more time for yourself. However, on the other side, it may also make the world a dull place to live and people unhappy. The ultimate purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness. One of the best ways to do it is to indulge in recreation and entertainment. In today's world, you have ample opportunities to enjoy life and keep yourself busy. However, since some forms of entertainment can be addictive, costly, and harmful you have to make wise choices. Recreation helps you to relax and find temporary relief from stress, but if you have major worries in life which you cannot easily forget, it may not be effective in reducing your stress. Instead of reducing, some recreations like dangerous sports also increase stress and anxiety. If you suffer from stress, you should avoid them.

13. Have realistic goals in life

To achieve success in life, it is necessary to set difficult, but achievable goals, and push your limits. However, your goals must be realistic. Unrealistic goals and overambitious targets may cause much stress and lead to overexertion, restlessness, loss of sleep and self-esteem. Your plans and targets must be according to your strengths and weaknesses and you must be realistic in your thinking, attitude, and approach. It is better to achieve them through honest and persistent hard work, rather than through deception and shortcuts in your anxiety to achieve too much in too short a time.

14. Control your perceptions and responses

Most of the time it is not what happens to you, which causes the stress, but how you perceive and interpret the experience. In this regard, our beliefs, thinking and attitude play an important role. For example, when an angry customer walks into your office, you may react one way and your supervisor may react in another way. You may think that the customer is there to create trouble and your supervisor may think she has a genuine problem, which needs to be resolved. Here the situation is the same, but you and your supervisor interpreted it and responded to it differently. In most cases our perceptions, actions and responses are influenced by our thoughts, values, beliefs, and judgment. So is the case with the stress. If by nature you are sensitive, distrustful and defensive, you may see threat even in ordinary situations and experience negative emotions. On the other hand, if you are confident and open minded, you may react positively to the same situations. Therefore, analyze situations that cause stress to see whether they are caused by your perceptions, thinking and attitude rather than the external events.

15. Have a positive mental attitude

Imagine you just entered your office, and you were about to switch on your laptop to begin your day's work when your boss rings you on the intercom and asks you to come into his room. You know he would not usually call you at such an early hour, unless there is a serious problem. You are aware that the company is doing restructuring and of late, many people are being laid off. After hearing his anxious voice on the intercom, you may start worrying that you are going to be laid off and your boss called you to deliver the bad news. Anxiously you walk into his office and greet him with a nervous smile. He asks you to sit, and inquires calmly how your day was. Then without waiting for your reply, he informs you that he had a bad day. His car broke down on the way, and he had to arrange for its towing and take a taxi to reach the office. After a pause, he asks you politely whether it would be convenient for you to drop him at his home in the evening since it was located on your way to your home. You feel greatly relieved as you listen to him and happily agree to drop him wherever he wanted to go. What happened here? You aggravated your thoughts by exaggerating your fear and anxiety, expecting the worst to happen. Without any connection to reality, you envisioned a negative outcome. Stress is often caused by our negative thoughts, exaggerated fears, lack of confidence, and low self-esteem. It may also increase when you assume that the situation is beyond your control. When stress is aggravated thus, you can counter it by realistically analyzing the problem situation, challenging your negative thoughts, and find rational solutions.

16. Stay proactive

If your house is on a lakefront or a river front, you should better insure it against floods. The insurance companies will be reluctant to give you that cover, but you need to get it even if it costs extra because the risk is high. If you go on vacation, put all the valuables in a locker and let your neighbor know that you will be on vacation so that she can keep a watch on your house and take care of the junk mail placed near the mailbox. By proactive actions, you can minimize risks and thereby stress. Some people do not like to be in crowded places for long. Some are stressed by excess noise, while some feel uncomfortable because of sight problems when they have to drive in the middle of the night. If you know in advance what makes you anxious or uncomfortable, you can proactively avoid those situations, or when it is not possible, you can mentally prepare to bear with them. By identifying problems in advance, and taking timely actions, you can save yourself from a lot of trouble, worry, and anxiety.

17. Have faith in yourself

One of the chief sources of anxiety is the lack of self-confidence. When you are not sure of the outcome of your actions, you feel anxious and insecure. Self-confidence does not develop overnight, since it is directly related to your self-esteem and experience. To regain your confidence, you have to face your fears and undertake tasks that help you to build trust in yourself. You also have to examine your assumptions and irrational beliefs, which you might have acquired in your childhood from your parents and peers, and validate them rationally against your experience and observation. There is no better cure for low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence than achieving success. Therefore, you should routinely set goals and keep achieving them. When you face failures and setbacks, instead of personalizing them, you should take them in your stride as learning experiences and move on.

18. Practice visualization

Since the primary source of your stress is your mind, with the help of visualization you can change your habitual thought patterns that produce stress and anxiety. Another advantage of visualization is you can image positive outcomes to difficult situations, without the need to go through them in real life, and learn to respond to them in empowering and effective ways to regain your confidence and optimism. You can also use it to visualize images, and scenery that soothe your mind and make you peaceful.

19. Practice moderation in whatever you do

 The middle path of moderation is always the best path. We cannot withstand extreme conditions. Anything in excess is harmful to us. Two thousand and five hundred years ago the Buddha suggested the Noble Middle Path as the best way to live in the world and overcome vice and suffering. Moderation in life is still the best way to remain balanced and poised. Nature has created us in such a way that we cannot withstand extreme conditions of life. Therefore, enjoy all the good things in life with moderation, and avoid the stress and the suffering that arise from the extreme conditions of life.

20. Live a wholesome, balanced and holistic life

Do you have any regrets in life? Do you believe that you could have lived a different life? Dissatisfaction with your life or achievements, and sense of inadequacy, or purposelessness can lead to frustration and unhappiness. You can offset such feelings by planning your life properly and leading a holistic and balanced life in which you can accommodate both your material and spiritual goals, and secure peace and happiness without losing your inner poise. For example, you may regard your job or profession as important to you, but you cannot let it control your life or consume your energies. Everything in your life is a means, not an end in itself, and you cannot let anything enslave you or control you.

21. Manage your relationships

Relationships are a major source of stress and unhappiness in life, and unless you are careful they can cause a lot of mental trauma and leave you feeling disturbed or even devastated. You cannot control other people's behavior and responses. Therefore, you cannot easily predict how your relationships turn out in the long run. People may speak to you nicely in your presence and do the opposite on your back. They may betray your trust, or scheme against you. You should therefore regard your relationships with practical or philosophical attitude, with detachment, tolerance and understanding, toning down your expectations and controlling your emotions and responses. You may also choose your close relationships carefully, and avoid frequent interaction with negative and envious people, who are difficult to please or trust.

22. Have a philosophy of your own

Cultivate a personal philosophy or a belief system, which can shield you from the shocks and disappointments in life and provide you with a strong purpose and motive to continue in the face of adversity. For many people their personal philosophy is shaped by their religious and cultural beliefs, and in some cases by their experience. You can create it from any number of sources, including your experience or perceptions. It is better to have a broad based philosophy derived from various sources, since it will effectively protect you from difficult and stressful situations.

23. Share your problems

Sometimes it is better to let out your feelings and thoughts and lighten up your heart. However, you can do it only with people you trust or those who can give you sane advice. Even with them, perhaps, it is not prudent to reveal certain sensitive information, which may hurt you later. As a stress buster, it may not be a sure solution, which will always work but sometimes it can help you, at least temporarily, to lighten up and find solace. If you do not want to speak to others about your problems, you can write them down and let go of your thoughts and worries.

Manage your stress in healthy ways

Stress is a common problem in today's world. According to a survey conducted in 2013 by American Psychological Association, about 77% people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress and 73% experience psychological symptom caused by it. Of them, a majority held that money, work, economy, relationships, and family responsibilities were the major causes of stress, which they experienced as fatigue, headache, muscle tension, etc. No one can avoid stress in this world because of our limitations, vulnerabilities and the impermanence of the world itself. Studies show that while about 60% of the people try to reduce their stress by some means, only about 35%-40% feel that they are doing a good job of it. Normal stress can be managed by practicing relaxation and visualization techniques we have stated before. However, chronic stress requires a more serious approach, which can be resolved only by disciplined and organized effort involving healthy behavior, and good habits.

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