Friday, July 5, 2013

Curing Anxiety, Part 5: Relaxation, the Remedy for the Modern World

Do you ever feel like there are too few hours in the day?  And your to-do list never gets any smaller?
Do you ever feel like you can’t keep up with everyone else?
Do you feel like you don’t have enough time to take care of yourself?  Or you feel guilty when you do?
Do you have a difficult time falling asleep or staying asleep through the night?
Do you drink more than one cup of coffee/caffeine a day?

Do you microwave your Pop-Tarts because toasting them would take too long?
“It’s time to pick up some Montana brochures.” (Is this really my first Brian Regan quote?  Shocking!)

Our world is moving faster and faster every day.  New technology is invented as often as the weather changes.  The Internet is so quick that a single second delay is considered unacceptable.  There are thousands of television channels to watch, millions of movies to choose from, and countless things to read online.  If you go into a store, you are faced with many options of the same product and are expected to choose wisely.  Then everyone thinks they belong in the speedy checkout aisle no matter how many items they have.  Do you ever see people leaving church once Mass is over?  In five seconds, there’s no one left inside.  I always wonder if I missed the announcement for free donuts…

If you are like me, then you have a difficult time fitting in.

When I am feeling like I can’t keep up, I am too tired, or I am feeling too slow for this fast-paced world, I think of this song by the Weepies:

“I thought of you, and where you’d gone,
and the world spins madly on…the whole world is moving, but I'm standing still.”

I can’t keep up.  And if I do try to keep up, I’ll get frazzled and anxious.  My pace is slower than that of the rest of the world.  I crave harmony and tranquility – the still point in the turning world.

For a long time, I felt like I had to adjust my speed to my surroundings.  But now I know that it is imperative for my good mental health to slow down to a pace that is comfortable for me.  I am learning to make peace with the fact that the world will spin madly on without me, but that’s OK.

Did you know that it’s OK to slow down?

The best way to slow down is to relax your body and your mind.  Relaxing is not something that comes natural to most people living in this wonderful country of the U S of A.  Many people are influenced by the culture of turbo speed and feel like they must go with the flow or be left behind.

Very few people really know how to relax in a healthy way.  Relaxation is a learned practice.  Knowing how and when to relax is vital for good mental health and good health overall.

I grew up in a German influenced family where if you weren’t working or accomplishing a task, something was wrong with you.  You always had to be doing something…anything!...just get to work and stay busy.  Don’t get caught without an occupation or you might be asked to clean the bathrooms.

I wonder if that is why I took up smoking.
Lady Bracknell: Do you smoke?
Jack: Well, Lady Bracknell, I am bound to say, yes, I do smoke.
Lady Bracknell: That is well. A man should always have an occupation.

Smoking gave me an excuse to take deep breaths and clear my head for a brief moment.  I knew I needed to slow down, but I did not want to be accused of laziness.
That brings us to a good point:

Is “relaxing” a linguistic disguise for the word “laziness”?

Relaxed and lazy are two very distinct adjectives…adverbs, “whatever Russ, whatever”.

Let’s break it down, Timberlake Style.  “Go 'head be gone with it."
Laziness defined as a sin (acedia or spiritual sloth) is “refusing the joy that comes from God and to be repelled by divine goodness” (def. by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2094).

I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.  Read it again if you want.

When and why would one “refuse the joy of God”?  Well, when you refuse God, you are taking matters into your own hands.  Laziness, in the above definition, is a choice to trust in yourself more than you trust in the Lord.  Why is that lazy?  Well, because it’s insanely DIFFICULT to trust God, let go of the control, and let Him-who-knows-all take care of you.  It is easier to do it yourself, right?

Also, laziness or sloth is understood as “a form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of the heart” (CCC, No. 2733).

I’ll give you another brief time-out…OK, resume.

There are three specific parts to the definition in the above quote.  First off, laziness is defined as not spending time in daily prayer, practicing the faith, or giving one’s self opportunities to grow in charity.

Second, decreasing vigilance is allowing one’s self to be put in the near occasion of sin.  If you drop your guard, you will slowly become desensitized to sin and evil.  It’s like a solider that lets the enemy cross the border because he doesn’t want to get up or because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Instead, he should put up his gun and say “Get out!” or “Get behind me, Satan! (Matt 16:23)”

Lastly, the “carelessness of the heart” means that you are apathetic about how you show love and to whom you show it.  Our hearts should burn with desire to be with the Lord, not burn with the desire for that new car, new outfit, or that new house.
Does that make sense, or did I just complicate the issue?

If you’re lost, just pray for me that I am not judged for using Justin Timberlake to introduce the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

My point is, relaxing and laziness are NOT the same thing.  As you can see above, laziness is so much more than sitting and doing nothing.

Relaxation is rejuvenating, refreshing, and a necessary part of life.

Time spent in relaxation can actually help you grow closer to God.

I wanted to make this distinction so you wouldn’t feel guilty about relaxing.

There are many benefits of purposeful relaxation.  It can provide relief of muscle tension, anxiety, irritability, depressive thoughts, and over-analytical thoughts.  It can also improve memory and concentration, boosted the immune system, increase energy, and give you more control over your moods.

And that’s just the half of it!  After several months of practicing intentional relaxing, during high-stress, intense moments, you will be able to call to mind the feelings of peace and calm so that you can better deal with the situation and make good decisions.  For me, this is clutch.  I can choose to relax in my controlled environment which benefits my overall health, and I can react in a healthy way to stressful situations that I cannot control.

Of course, no one is perfect.  You can never completely take away the feelings of stress and anxiety.  However, since I’ve learned these good relaxation skills, I make better decisions about 9 out of every 10 times.  I don’t care who you are, those are good odds!

You might not ask because you think you already know the answer, but nonetheless, “How do you relax?”

I hate to break it to you, but watching TV or playing on your iPad is not true, beneficial relaxation.  It’s leisure.  Those activities may require less brain activity, but your mind is still processing and translating new information.  Yes, you could be sitting still, but your mind can be moving 100 mph.

The goal of true relaxation is about quieting your mind and separating yourself from the world and your surroundings.  It is resting those certain areas of the brain that function 99.99% of the time.  Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with leisure, mindless activities, or distractions.  They have their own place of importance, but that’s a topic for another day.

Relaxation is being OK with yourself as you are, sitting in quiet, calm contemplation or meditation.  I am not talking about hypnoses or other eastern spirituality meditations.  As a Catholic, those practices are not helpful.  I am talking about turning off all the chatter in your brain and becoming aware of your body and your mind as you are currently.  It is also about letting go of control and realizing your dependency on God.

This practice will not happen overnight, especially if you are used to moving at turbo speed.  True relaxation requires time and patience if you want to be comfortable doing it.

Start off slow.  Give yourself 5-10 minutes to relax during the day.  Do not be discouraged if you can’t sit through 30 minutes of meditation right away without feeling like you are going crazy.  If 5 minutes are still too much, it’s OK to start with 2-3 minutes.  As you get comfortable with a small amount of time, gradually increase it to about 20-30 minutes.  If you struggle with anxiety, I suggest taking multiple moments during the day to relax.  I usually take about 30 minutes in the morning or early afternoon and about 30 minutes before I go to bed at night.

When I first started relaxation meditation, I listened to a guided session.  Because I wasn’t used to turning off my thoughts, my mind often ran away with me.  It was helpful to have a calming voice to bring me back and guide me into the meditation.  Now, however, because I am used to it, I just listen to relaxing music for the extended period of time.

My favorite mind relaxation meditation:
My favorite muscle relaxation meditation:
My favorite relaxing music:

Especially in this day in age where everyone is moving faster than the speed of light, it is so important to learn how to relax.  If you spend time relaxing every day, you will see a dramatic decline in your anxiety.  It is OK to relax; you don’t have to earn it or justify it.  It is a vital part of life that most people just don’t know how to do.  Try it.  I guarantee you will begin to have a more nourishing life in the process.

If you just joined this site, check out the first four posts in this series:
Curing Anxiety, Part 1: Tapering off Medication
Curing Anxiety, Part 2: Seven Practical Ways to Defuse Anxiety
Curing Anxiety, Part 3: Positive Self-Talk
Curing Anxiety, Part 4: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Painting

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