Do you ever feel stressed out thinking about how you’re going to unwind and decompress? Self-care advice and relaxation techniques bombard us from every direction, and there’s a sense of pressure to do the right (and newest!) things to de-stress or quiet our restless brains. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of yoga—both the asanas and the cool workout clothes—but even though it may calm my nervous system, it doesn’t mean that it’s the most ideal or accessible stress reduction technique for everyone or every occasion.
There is a simpler way to take the urgency out of stress reduction. By looking at the following four basic concepts, you can develop greater insight into what methods will be most effective and uniquely suited to help you relax.
First, you have to determine what drains your energy and what restores it. If you tend to be more of an extrovert, you probably start to feel depleted after too much time spent alone or doing less-stimulating activities. Introverted types, on the other hand, typically find prolonged or intense social interactions to be exhausting. Identifying these demands on your energy is key to understanding how you recharge and why relaxation is not one-size-fits-all. For example, we all know that exercise is beneficial in reducing stress. But the extroverted type who gets energized when sharing experiences with others would get a greater boost from competing in team sports or group classes (indoor soccer or CrossFit anyone?), whereas the introverted type craves more physical space and competing with oneself (a long solo run, being out on a kayak or paddleboard). Exploring nature is also known to rejuvenate our minds and bodies, but a solitary hike in the woods may not be restorative for someone who prefers to be where the action is, such as a guided birding walk, rebuilding a trail or whitewater rafting.
At first glance, this concept may seem counterintuitive. Why would I want to challenge myself if I’m trying to chill the heck out? Because when we undertake something that is challenging and pushes (or even just nudges) us to grow, there is a sense of excitement, inspiration and interest that starts to bubble up inside. We begin to feel confident, and confidence is relaxing (think rocking that suit or dress for an important event to feel confident and comfortable). You don’t have to take on a tremendous risk to get this benefit. Any activity that engages your brain in new learning counts, such as practicing a foreign language or musical instrument, experimenting with photography techniques or doing a crossword or logic puzzle. Of course, rock climbing or surfing could add some strenuous fun to your risk-to-relax challenge.
This concept fits into the more traditional category of stress relievers, but let’s expand on it. A well-known mindfulness technique is to repeat a mantra or prayer and keep returning to that phrase as a way to quiet intruding thoughts. This meditative practice has a soothing effect on your mind, but sometimes the body doesn’t follow suit. Engaging in a repetitive motion activity can also stimulate the relaxation effect, as it requires sustained body-mind attention that tends to quiet your brain. This kind of repetition can take many forms—knitting, sewing, gardening, raking, shoveling, playing guitar scales, swimming laps, cross-country skiing, ironing (OK, maybe this only applies to me and the one other person I know who finds this relaxing), and so on. Athletes and performers who warm up doing sets of various monotonous drills know the power of rhythm and repetition to get relaxed.
Now that you have some basic principles to incorporate into your own personal stress reduction formula, you need consistency to promote success. Consistency builds discipline and confidence that helps put your mind at ease and lets you relax and decompress. Start with the smallest imaginable goal and scale that down even further, such as 5-10 minutes a day (our brains like when we achieve things), and do your chosen relaxation activity. This will help you develop a natural habit as part of your daily routine so you don’t have to think about it. Remember, we are trying not to stress out over how to de-stress.
You probably know your stressed-out self very well. Here’s to getting to know your more relaxed self. Maybe I’ll meet you in that yoga class (as long as it’s not too crowded)!
Sindee Gozansky is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland. When not working, she loves running, swimming and traveling.