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Why it is much more difficult to relax than to strain, and how to do it?

In our time, stress has become synonymous with life itself. We constantly hear about stress — stress affects weight, stress affects health, stress affects motivation, mood,and creativity. We hear about stress so often that we no longer pay attention to it. Especially in a country where there has been a war for years and where you do not really rely on predicted future. We live in stress and laugh at any trying to control something.

Just a stress. What now, not to live?

How to relieve stress

The movie "American Scam» frame

Stress is responsible for any misfortunes - from diarrhea to depression. Its meaning seems to be understood by everyone, although a clear definition will not be immediately given. But to fight with something, you first must give it a name. Hans Selye, the author of the positive and negative stress concept (eustress and distress), defines it as follows: stress is a non-specific body response to any demand. Such a demand can be a sharp change in temperature (getting from a warm room to cold air is already stressful for the body), as well as taking medications, falling in love, a new job, divorce, or a subjective sense of impasse in development.

Stress itself is not bad, it is the body's reaction to the new "life requirements", and this reaction lasts until the body again reaches homeostasis (stability). The problem is that our adaptive resources are limited, and if the stress factor acts for too long, and the body still has not been able to adapt, then all internal processes are confused and the body moves to disease or even death.

Hit or run

In response to any potential threat, the body reflexively responds with a "hit or run" mode, which was first described by the psychophysiologist Walter Cannon. And this is not just a figure of speech: the body really begins to work in a different way — the heartbeat and breathing become faster, the pupils dilate, the sugar level rises to give energy to the muscles for hitting or escaping, the functions of the sexual and digestive systems are suppressed, tremors occur, sweating increases, tunnel vision and partial hearing loss appear. In the short term, such resource mobilization is intended to help the "master in distress". When there is no time to reason, the body itself evacuates a person from a burning building.

But this mechanism is not adapted to work 24/7. If the mobilization phase (anxiety) does not lead to a relaxation phase, you are draining your resources — physical, emotional, and mental. Hans Selye believed that the amount of energy adaptation capital is given to a person from birth, and it is depleted. You can't replenish this precious resource, but you can train yourself to spend it as wisely as possible. This is similar to the yogic parable that each person is measured a strictly defined number of breaths, so if you want to live long, you must learn to breathe as slowly as possible.

More recent researchers have modified Selye's version of the birth-given capital, proving that it can still be replenished with the help of deep relaxation techniques and the development of coping with stress strategies. However, such way as just to sleep won't help here. Relaxation becomes a science, an art that needs to be taught as carefully as a foreign language.

The irony is that truly relaxing is a much more subtle and complex task than tensing up.

You don't need to do anything for tension, it is obtained automatically, but to relax consciously is really hard.

Is the body sane?

Paradox: to relax, you first need to concentrate. People call relaxation everything that possible, from sticking to TV shows to drinking with friends. But real relaxation always requires working with the body and with deep personal attitudes, which is hardly available when attention is scattered or clouded.

Don't take stress as an enemy. It is a tool that teaches you to see and understand the relationship between mind and body (bodymind), which in the Eastern tradition has never been considered separately.

By studying this connection, you can find the key not only to relaxation, but also to changing your entire life. If an event from the outside world penetrates the thought ("I am in danger") and clamps the body, then by consciously opening the body and forming a new thought ("I am safe"), we can influence the outside event. The chain works both ways!

How to unclench the body and thoughts There are many methods of coping with stress — progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobson (available on YouTube), biofeedback (carried out only in medical centers with the help of special equipment), autogenic training according to Schultz, hypnosis, working with the imagination, qigong, yoga, pranayama, meditation, walking. I will only tell you about the techniques that I tried myself and that really helped me build the reverse chain — from a relaxed body through a new way of thinking to a new way of life that helps me handle my adaptive capital much more carefully.

Tail between your legs

Anyone who is familiar to yoga will immediately understand what I am talking about. If not, try doing Shavasana. Lie on your back in a place where no one will disturb you, close your eyes, and command each part of your body to relax completely (call them in turn, from your heels to the top of your head). Lie for a few minutes, watching the sensations in your body.

Very often, when you think that there is nowhere else to relax, you direct your attention to the perineum and feel that the thighs and pelvic floor are clamped; the lower abdomen is tense. The tension remains in the feet, palms, and back muscles. You give the command to relax everything, lie still for a couple of minutes, once again direct your attention to these points and are surprised to notice that they are again tense. Amazing! Even in shavasan, in a quiet place, the body is at the start: it is ready to strike or run! A reptilian brain can't be calmed so easily.

To learn how to consciously relax the muscles (sending a signal to the brain: there is no danger), you must first learn to consciously contract them. The average person sees himself as a passport photo: his head and maybe even his hands are printing something. Meaning, that we don't feel our body as a 3D object. We are not aware of the volume of our thighs, the diaphragm, and the position of the spine in space, not to mention the smaller muscles.

Modern life pushes us to stay with our thoughts (and will) anywhere but not in the body. We lose all conscious connection with our "living machine" and remember it only when it responds with pain.

Learning to communicate with your body, to feel the relationship between the volitional impulse and the muscles reaction, to hear pain and respond to it correctly, to soberly use your strength are the tasks for a person who wants to understand the art of deep relaxation. I don't know of any other discipline that teaches this better than yoga. It is like the ability to read, write and count, which later allow you to understand at least higher mathematics, or even the world literature. You can start studying it at any age and in any state of health.

With the pigeon-covered ceilings

We live in a rational world: everything must be weighed, evaluated, and paid for. But inside us lives an irrational, half-savage being who believes in signs, fairy tales, and dreams.

By neglecting the connection with the unconscious (often frightening), we are stealing our own strength and foundation for imagination and creativity.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a cult director and part-time shaman, believes it is critical to connect with the irrational, intuitive forces of your personality. As these forces are responsible for understanding the concept of "living here and now", which can instantly remove even severe distress.

In the book "Psychomagic. Imagination as the basis of life" Alejandro gives a lot of exercises for the imagination development. I particularly liked the one in which he recommends getting rid of the language of facts and replacing it with the language of expressing your feelings.

"We are used to talking like a normal person. We are afraid of madness. Nevertheless, the rivers that flow from the dove-covered ceilings will always be white and dark and will open the way to all pleasures... Understood? No? Yes? This is how we should talk, let completely meaningless phrases express our feelings" writes Jodorowsky.


The factor that puts the body on alert can be not only an external enemy, but also uncontrolled thoughts. The Creator of cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck, called them automatic. Fleeting value judgments arise as a reaction to circumstances and are not the result of reflection, inference, or necessarily based on evidence, but are usually accepted as the truth. There is nothing wrong with the appearance of these thoughts — the problem is that they are formed on the basis of deep personal beliefs and attitudes that can be either positive or neutral, or negative ("I am weak, everyone can hurt me", "I don't deserve to be happy", "if you relax for a second, you will be immediately eaten", and so on). There is no wonder that the body responds to thoughts of this kind, often unconsciously swirling in the head, with distress.

To cope with negative automatic thoughts, you must first learn to catch them. In this a psychologist can help you, or even keeping a diary. If you want to learn how to count your cockroaches by yourself, try this exercise: when you suddenly have a sharp and unreasonably bad mood, ask yourself: "Why am I suddenly overreacting?", write the first answer that comes to mind. And then, in a calm environment, evaluate how much this answer corresponds to reality.

For example, you feel bad after talking to colleagues who ignored your innovative idea. The automatic thought is sure to be: “No one ever hears me." Later, when you get out of your emotional state, you may ask yourself:

Is it true that NO one ever hears me? Where did I get this setup? What will happen if I change it? What would I recommend to a friend in such situation?

Psychologist Judith Beck has developed a special questionnaire on working with automatic thoughts, which is easy to Google if you are interested in the approach.

How to get rid of stress

The film “Bridget Jones's Diary” frame

An alternative way to work with automatic thoughts is to ignore and purge them. One of the most well-known techniques of pranayama, kapalabhati means "skull cleansing". In addition to the positive effects on the body (increasing overall tone, improving the digestive system, nervous and immune systems), kapalabhati helps to clear the mind of "mental gum". In a sitting position with a straight back, make sharp rapid exhalations, "picking up" the stomach under the ribs. The work on blowing out unnecessary thoughts is only the tip of the iceberg of what the body and mind of a person who has mastered various pranayama techniques can do. I will not specifically describe other methods here, because it is best to learn pranayama slowly, consciously, under the supervision of long-practicing teachers.

Don't sleep when you're awake!

We have already learned that to learn how to relax your muscles, you must first learn how to contract them correctly. The same principle works with the mind: in order not to "float away" into the streams of automatic thoughts, you need to concentrate your attention to the utmost. This is taught by meditation.

In the age of McMindfulness, when people learn to meditate through apps on their phones, it's hard to figure out what it is at all. I tell you, what it is not: meditation is not a parsing of your thoughts (as in the technique of working with automatic thoughts), not a flight of dreams, not a dream, not visualization, and — attention! — not relaxation. On the contrary, this is the moment of peak concentration of thought, when you begin to fix the moment of immersion in dreams and can give yourself a conscious command to return to reality.

Meditation helps to distinguish reality from dreams and illusions. When the mind gradually masters this art, it understands how many unsolvable problems that do not allow us to breathe are just our painful dreams, in which for some reason we ourselves want to be.

As David Lynch, a big fan of transcendental meditation, says "you should understand adversity, but it's better not to live in it."

Dawn in the mountains

If meditation does not want to deal with dreams at all, then the yoga Nidra technique uses them to set the person on a more positive wave. It begins, like any yoga class, with asanas and breathing exercises. But during Shavasana, the teacher not only directs your attention to all areas, but also "directs" your imagination. You are asked to imagine an idyllic picture: dawn in the mountains on the way to a distant village. "The rays of the rising sun illuminate areas that were previously hidden from you. You rejoice in the miracle of a new day birth" says the instructor, and you really feel the warmth of the sun's rays on your skin. You fall into a state between sleep and wakefulness, but the voice of the instructor does not allow you to go into disturbing dreams, replacing them with a calming picture.

"We are in a constant state of stress. War, unstable economy, sugar is a taboo, eating after six o'clock is a taboo; shampoo is only from the bio kiosk. Do you think the last three points are small things? Nothing like that! Everyday stress drains energy from us. Yoga Nidra helps you calm down, hear yourself in this information stream and replenish your strength".

Nature, walking, cats and dogs

I want to finish with a banal, but very effective technique, which I personally often neglect precisely because it is too on the surface. Just thirty minutes of walking a day in the middle of nature (even in the Park) can reduce anxiety, improve blood pressure and heartbeat, and improve mood and happiness. And if you also manage to watch birds, play with a dog or a cat, a rush of oxytocin will definitely not leave a chance for cortisol. So you can get used to the idea that whatever difficulties you have to overcome, no matter how many horrors are transmitted in the news, as long as you can walk around the Park and pet cats — everything is fine.

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