The secret to really good health is a balanced approach.  The first stress strategy that comes to mind for most is exercise, or the practice of getting all pumped up.  The strategy of relaxation is often times overlooked and overshadowed by ‘getting all pumped up’.  Relaxation serves to balance with Exercise – strive to have both strategies within easy reach.

Let’s jump the first hurdle: What does it mean to relax?

Ask yourself about what kinds of things you do in order to relax.  If you are anything like I was, your responses will include things like going for walks, working-out, sleeping, reading a good book, watching TV, riding a bike or taking vacations.

While these responses are all pleasant things to do – they do not equate to the sensation of relaxation.  This bears some further explanation.  Our brains are not static organs.  They have the ability to adapt with re-wiring to suit to the environment.  The professional first responder’s brain is really well wired and trained for a stressful environment.  That same brain can wire itself for a relaxed state if given the time and training to attain it. I can’t overstate the importance of taking that kind of training time.

The toll that chronic stress can take on us includes anxiety, weight loss/gain, fatigue, headaches, irritability, insomnia, cravings, memory loss and severe behavioral changes.  I fell victim to the latter and really do wish I knew then what I know now about the balance of relaxation.

The first psychologist to work with me had to put out a number of brush fires.  The first step was to start with a progressive muscle relaxation exercise.  Here is a link that explains the technique quite well.

I would suggest starting the technique with the aid of an external verbal guide.  There are a number of progressive muscle relaxation offerings on-line.  Once you get practiced to the point of recognizing the ‘relaxed sensation’, you can shorten your time commitment by systematically commanding your muscle groups to relax rather than going through the steps of tension vs. relaxation.  Practice that for awhile and then go to Stage Three.  When you have achieved the relaxed state, begin building a mental picture of a safe place (real or imaginary). Your mind’s eye will quickly associate your relaxed sensations to the picture you are building.

My picture is at the far end of a 19 mile long lake in central British Columbia.  It has a gravel beach for the waves to rhythmically whoosh over.  The lake drains into a set of river rapids to provide some nice, constant background sounds.  It is a fly-fisher’s paradise.  There is a big log to lean against while sitting under the warmth of the afternoon sun, glinting off the crystal clear waters, from which the incoming breeze smells incredibly sweet, soft and smooth.  

When I want to relax now, I just close my eyes and start visualizing.  By the time I have built the scene to the point of creating my favorite log (about 5 seconds into the exercise) I am totally relaxed.  It took me longer than expected just to write the above paragraph – I kept wanting to drift off!  The technique works.

The really good news is that once you have a handle on what relaxation feels like again – you can apply it with methods that are specific to you.  Yoga, meditation, massage are just a few potential avenues for you to explore. So go ahead and have some fun with it; you won’t be disappointed!