By Dr. Cynthia Ackrill
You’ve been in overdrive all day — juggling logistics, people, project deadlines, and endless to-dos — or maybe putting out fires, squeezing in errands, finding lost toys, and making sure you’ve filled out all the forms for school tomorrow.
All day, you eagerly anticipate finding just 30 minutes to chill out, catch up with your significant other, and relax into sleep.
But the problem is … though your body is ready to plop down on the sofa and decompress, your brain is still going a mile a minute.
It’s stuck in “go-go-go” mode. As a result, you’re there with your loved ones, but you’re not really present. You think, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I relax?”
The answer: Nothing is wrong with you!
Physiologically, it’s actually really challenging for your mind and body to transition from navigating the stress and potential “dangers” of the day at breakneck speed to suddenly letting go into the peaceful, relaxed, “safe” state you crave. Harvard researcher Herbert Benson, MD says it may sound counter-intuitive, but you have to train your mind to relax with ease.
You have to give your brain permission to unwind.
After hours of driving “fast and furious,” there’s a fear of letting go. After all, what if you drop the ball on something when you let your guard down? What if you lose your edge or can’t ramp back up into productive mode again? People even become addicted to the rev of busyness, making withdrawal downright scary.
So how do you let your body relax AND bring your mind to rest with it? The answer is to create series of simple transition rituals that alert your mind and body that it’s time to wind down and takes them through the process (versus just shifting gears abruptly). Here’s how to do it:
1. Close your day. Before you even try to walk away from the bustle of the day, take five minutes to “capture” any loose ends on to-do lists and calendars. This reassures your brain that it doesn’t need to keep scanning all night for any misses nor stay alert, reminding you to schedule the vet appointment.
2. Practice “going neutral” during the day. You will not lose your edge and, in fact, you’ll actually be more productive if a few times each day, you bring your mind and body back to a more relaxed state. Athletes know these rituals are the key to sustained performance.
You can set a reminder alarm, or use an app like GoodHabits to cue yourself to pause. Take some slow deep breaths, look around, stretch, move, look out the window, and renew your energy in whatever way you need in the moment.
3. Create a “Relax Time Ritual” that trains your mind and body to let go. Just as bedtime rituals help children learn to settle down, relaxation or transition rituals help adults unwind.
Unfortunately, the usual screen time approach is not brain friendly. But, there are a zillion ways to help your body and mind invoke the “relaxation response,” from simple breath work and meditation to quick walks around the park, warm baths and music. The critical key is to pick a routine you like and can practice regularly. The more wired and amped you are at the end of a day, the more you need this ritual.
The good news is, it really only takes a few weeks to make your ritual a habit. So, start taking advantage of your precious down time to better connect with your loved ones and yourself — improve your sleep quality, and awake refreshed to tackle the next day. Ready to experiment?
To learn more strategies to tackle your stress or take control of your future, contact Cindi Ackrill, MD by email, take an upcoming courses or check out her resources on twitter @cackrill or on her Tapped In show on the Grant Cardone network.
This article originally appeared on YourTango.
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To help quiet your mind and boost awareness of the sensations in your body, sit or lie down in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Start by drawing your attention to different parts of your physical body, and checking in with how they feel. You can begin at the feet and work your way up to the head, noticing and releasing any tension as you go. A thorough body scan meditation might last around 10 minutes, but you can quickly complete the exercise in a minute or less as a way to bring back your wandering mind to the physical present.
Email is one of the biggest Internet stressors, and when we’re at our desks dealing with a pile of unread messages and a growing “follow-up” folder, it’s easy to get a little anxious. In the book “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life,” Dr. Lillian Cheung and Zen master Thich Naht Hahn outline a brief email meditation to practice before you hit the “send” button. Click here for the full instructions.
According to Dr. Kathleen Hall, stress expert and founder of the Mindful Living Network, nature sounds can do wonders to reduce stress. Hall recommends sitting quietly for one to three minutes and listening to the sounds of natural landscapes, like oceans, rainforests or brooks.
“There are some great apps that have sounds of whales or birds or cats purring … It immediately stops the production of stress hormones,” Hall tells the Huffington Post.
Even if it doesn’t feel natural at first, making time for a quick laugh — whether it’s by watching a silly animal video or reminding yourself of a funny joke — can help bust you out of a stressful headspace.
Laughter releases endorphins in the brain and relaxes the muscles, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Breathly deeply in and out for just one minute can help to refresh your mind and reset your body. Harvard University research in the 1970s conducted by Dr. Herbert Benson found that short periods of meditation that focused on the breath had the power to alter the body’s stress responses, activating the “relaxation response.” Find a quiet place to sit for one minute, focusing on breathing deeply in and out and letting go of distracting thoughts.
The part of the brain that processes smells is located in close proximity to that which governs emotion and memory, so scent can be a powerful way to induce pleasant emotions and calm the mind. Essential oils can be particularly effective — according to a 2008 study published in Holistic Nursing Practice, essential oils actually reduced stress perception in nurses working in intensive care unit settings. Try keeping ylang ylang, peppermint or lavender essential oils at your desk and applying a small amount on the skin when you start feeling stressed.
Help soothe tense muscles in the neck and shoulders (also known as the “stress triangle”) by giving yourself a brief massage. But make sure it’s not a mindless massage while staring at the computer — for the full de-stressing benefits, stop what you’re doing and bring mindful awareness to the muscle tension you feel, as well as the release of that tension.
The free motion and stretching movements of dance can help to release tension from the body and lift your spirits. Exercise in any form can act as a stress reliever by pumping up endorphins, according to the Mayo Clinic, and dancing can be a particularly enjoyable way to blow off steam for many people. Put a favorite song on your headphones, step away from the computer, and let loose for a minute — it’s almost guaranteed to boost your mood.