What does relaxation mean to you?
Does it mean:
- sitting in your favorite chair and reading a good book?
- swinging idly in a hammock?
- playing a round of golf with friends?
- walking lazily on the beach?
- floating on a raft in your pool on a warm summer day?
You probably noticed that the things I just described are activities, things you do to get relaxed. So if these are the activities you choose to get relaxed, what is relaxation all about? In short, relaxation is a state of being that involves what is going on in your mind as well as your body. One way to understand this better is to compare the relaxed state with the stressed state.
Comparing the Stressed and Relaxed States of Being
The Stressed State
Think of the stress response as a heightened state of arousal of your mind and body. This heightened arousal mobilizes the energy and tension needed to fight or flee from stressors. The three key aspects of the stressed state are:
- increased nervous system arousal
- increased muscle tension
- increased negative thinking and unhelpful self-talk.
Your brain and nervous system work together like a large telephone network. The network has thousands of messages entering and leaving from various telephone lines and cell towers located throughout the region it serves. Your brain and nervous system process messages the same way.
The nerves that make up you central (brain and spinal cord) and peripheral (the rest of your nerves) nervous systems have millions of connections throughout your body and are constantly sending and receiving messages in the form of electrical impulses.
What happens when you try to make a telephone call or send an internet message in the middle of an emergency? During emergencies there are lots of other people making calls and going online, flooding the switchboard with messages that cause your message to fail, get delayed, or get garbled.
The same thing happens when your brain works overtime sending and receiving millions of stress-related nerve transmissions during a stressful period. During this time, you mind doesn’t process information as accurately or quickly as it normally does. It loses its ability to focus, concentrate, and think clearly.
The increased muscle tension associated with the stress response results in your skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscles being readied for action.
This state of tension is called bracing and is the result of incomplete contraction and relaxation of your muscles. When your muscles are chronically tense your body feels tight and on edge making it hard to relax and feel comfortable.
Increased negative thinking and unhelpful self-talk causes your brain to work overtime processing stressful information. It floods your mind with an endless procession of negative and pessimistic thoughts, concerns, and worries.
The Relaxed State
The relaxed state is the exact opposite of the stressed state. Instead of increased nervous and muscular system activity and negative thinking, your body and mind slow down.
All of your major brain and body functions operate at a slower, more efficient level. Your brain and central nervous system send and receive fewer messages. The messages that are sent are communicated more efficiently.
In addition, your skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscles loosen up, release their tension, and stop bracing. Your thoughts flow freely and easily and you are more optimistic and feel more in control of your life.
When you are relaxed, you simply cannot be stressed. The two states are diametrically opposed and cannot co-exist. You cannot be stressed and relaxed at the same time.
This is why it is so important to put your body into a relaxed state on a regular basis. It will cancel out the stressed state and create a less tense, calmer, and more peaceful state of being.