When was the last time you relaxed? I’m not talking about the minutes watching television over dinner. Honestly, that is what came to my mind first, for who doesn’t enjoy a cozy movie night or Netflix binge? Upon further reflection, I realize television is not relaxation for me; television is a passive escape from reality that does not always leave me feeling nourished. So when was the last time you chose to relax in a way that was personal and sustainable?
In Nikita Burke’s #33 Breathing and Your Nervous System, the body’s relaxation response is understood according to the “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” body mechanisms. Burke explains that the relaxation response, occurring during the “rest and digest” phase, focuses on body healing. One may most associate the relaxation response with achieving a good night’s sleep, but health goes past the ZZZ’s. Beyond pillow talk, learning to generate the relaxation response throughout the day is important to maintaining healthy mental and physical wellbeing. Harvard Health (2017) affirms that chronic stress and the inability to relax influences blood pressure, heart disease, digestive disorders, and ultimately body healing.
Although everyone experiences “fight or flight” mechanisms, those with neuropathy have further challenges towards promoting and maintaining the relaxation response. Alberta Health (2018) confirms that the body reacts to stress and pain with muscle tension and in turn muscle tension communicates to the body that a person is under stress. Neuropathy heightens this cyclical experience making relaxation feel
unattainable or even painful. Some neuropathy symptoms may be increasingly difficult to manage, as during moments of calm, rather than the day’s hustle, there is no distraction from pain or discomfort. Many suffer from restless leg syndrome or even sensations of burning feet, especially at night when trying to sleep. Challenges such as these may leave an individual feeling frustrated, hopeless, and disheartened towards any opportunity for relaxation.
Despite these challenges, training the body towards more often experiencing the relaxation response will lead an individual to understand their relaxation needs as a personal endeavour. The Calgary Neuropathy Association encourages individuals to practice promoting the relaxation response with patience, experimentation, and commitment. By experimenting with various calming techniques and resources eventually you will create an arsenal of relaxation resources that best suits you. Practice and determine what works and what doesn’t. Make yourself a priority so that on the easy days you will access and maintain relaxation, and on the tough days at least you’ll have an idea of what you personally need and can achieve in that moment.
Train Your Body and Brain: Exercises
Consider your breathing. What does a deep breath do for you? Take one, two, three, slowly now. It’s amazing how shallow we tend to breathe on a daily basis. Being conscious of your breathing, whether going about your day or preparing for sleep, is valuable for decreasing muscle tension. Try breathing deeply and slowly, focusing on your breath. Allow yourself to become disinterested in any thoughts, distractions, and pain if possible. Practice different relaxation techniques for shifting focus and slowing your system. Visit #33 Breathing and Your Nervous System for specific exercises, as well as Alberta Health (2018) at Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation.. What induces the relaxation response best for you? Maybe some or none! Move on to another exercise rather than frustrating yourself.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Fight that tension with tension! Lie somewhere where you can stretch out easily like a carpeted floor, yoga mat, or bed. Breathe in, tensing a specific muscle area, like clenching your fists. After inhalation for 4 to 10 seconds, exhale slowly while relaxing the muscle. Begin with muscles that you feel most comfortable with and continue to vary muscle groups over a period of time. Combining this technique with visualization may further promote relaxation. Try imagining limbs as warm water spreading across the floor as you breathe out and let go. For recommendations on how to safely tense muscle groups visit:Progressive Muscle Relaxation.. Try audio guidance with a muscle relaxation track such as:Progressive Muscle Relaxation (WITH Music) Too painful or feeling bored? Try your imagination with personal imagery.
Guided Imagery or Visualization
Conjure a calming scene in your mind that makes you feel relaxed. The more personal the scene, location, or experience, the more successful this technique will be. Include your senses, imagining smells, sounds, tastes, or touches that complete the visualization. For example, my visualization is quite simple. I slightly raise my face towards one of the many past blue skies from this life because these moments have given me peace. I softly close my eyes and remember my face warmed by happy hot sunbeams. Still struggling with your scene? Throw on some inspiring music or an ambiance inducing nature track! Visit #39 Visualization and Pain Management for further reading.
Despise those Exercises? Get to Know Yourself!
The above relaxation exercises aren’t for everyone! Don’t lose hope! Know yourself and consider activities that you find calming. Create a list that you can easily consult when you need to relax. Most importantly, recognize your need and then make the time for it. If you don’t make yourself a priority, nobody else can. Write your list of calming refreshing activities down. Make a note in your phone. Tape it to the fridge. Throw it in a shoe box under your bed with some of your favourite relaxation resources.
Relaxation Resources: List and Kit Inspiration
- Write: Find a journal. Make lists of all your favourite things in this world. Play sudoku.
- Read: Include a book that feels like a home. Browse the newspaper. Find the comic section.
- Bathe: Keep a beautiful smelling candle or a jar of bath salts.
- Cook: Flip through that recipe book. Dog-ear wishlist dinners. Make one.
- Colour: Buy that colouring book you saw at Chapters with the whimsical illustrations.
- Explore: Google events in your neighbourhood. Yoga? Meditation? Art class? Film screening? Massage?
- Play: Construct a puzzle or a tower of cards. Practice solitaire, bridge, or concentration.
- Listen: Create playlists, play an old memorable C.D., or subscribe to podcasts. Nourish your mind with meditation, history, or science! So much is out there!
- Breathe fresh air: Print your city map of walking paths or viewpoints. Get out there. Sit at the park with your headphones or book.
Ultimately, even relaxation needs practice. Practicing mind and body techniques but what if they’re not your cup of tea? Swap them for quiet time on your patio, with a real cup of tea, or whatever experiences in your life you find calming and refreshing. Make note of these experiences and replicate them. Consider waking up 10 minutes earlier, committing that time to yourself for practicing your relaxation response. Commit to at least one of your relaxation resources weekly, so that eventually it may become a daily priority. Relaxation and your health truly goes beyond a good night’s sleep. Choose to make yourself a priority!
Alberta Health. (2018, May 4). Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Retrieved from:
Alberta Health. (2018, May 4). Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation. Retrieved from: https://myhealth.alberta.ca/health/pages/conditions.aspx?Hwid=uz2255
Alberta Health. (2018, May 4). Stress Relief and Relaxation. Retrieved from: https://myhealth.alberta.ca/health/pages/conditions.aspx?Hwid=af1003spec
Relax for A While. (2018, May 4). Progressive Muscle Relaxation (WITH Music). Retrieved from:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86HUcX8ZtAk
Take steps to prevent or reverse stress-related health problems. (2017). Harvard Health Letter, 42(5), 1. Retrieved from: http://search.ebscohost.com.elibrary.calgarypubliclibrary.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sch&AN=121084419&site=scirc-live
Lisa-Marie McLennan is a University of Calgary graduate, holding her Bachelor of Arts: English Literature major & Psychology minor. Also see: https://calgaryneuropathy.com/about-us/ to learn more about Lisa Marie.