Relaxing into better days
Finding time and space to relax this past year has been difficult for many of us. Our lives have grown busier, but our worlds have contracted. A lot of relaxation activities, like going to the gym or grabbing coffee with a friend, were no longer possible. Yet, relaxation is still important for self-care and to keep us functioning at our best.
We spoke with Jordana Harshman, Wellness Manager and Certified Wellness Coach for Stanford Children’s Health, on what it actually means to relax, how to find your best relaxation activities, and tips on fitting relaxation into your day.
Relaxation is about resting.
Relaxation can be defined in multiple ways:
- The state of being free from tension and anxiety
- Recreation or rest, especially after a period of work
- The loss of tension in a part of the body, especially when it ceases to contract
- Rest is also defined similarly to relaxation and can be used interchangeably
Harshman explains that relaxation is not about doing more to do less or even about pursuing a specific form of relaxation that you may not like. Instead, relaxation is about resting and giving our minds and bodies a break to restore energy, recover cognitive function, and regulate mood.
Check in with yourself.
You may think that you have too much to do to relax, or you might believe that you don’t need to relax and that you feel fine and your needs are minimal. Harshman advises checking in with yourself and asking how you’re feeling — are you feeling your best possible self when you restrict yourself from relaxing?
“Noticing how you feel — let alone doing something about — may seem like a luxury these days, especially after a long and uncertain pandemic year that fundamentally changed or exacerbated workload and other responsibilities. The most important action you can take is checking in with yourself to determine how you feel energetically and develop priorities based on your needs.”
Rest is needed to build energy.
Harshman cites Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, author of “Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity,” who maintains that rest is needed in addition to sleep to build energy and outlined different types of rest everyone needs1:
- Physical: activity somewhere between quiet wakefulness in a hammock and gentle physical movement like yoga, walking or stretching
- Mental: taking short, intentional breaks, and stopping to record your small wins or three good things that happened during the day
- Sensory: breaks from screens, noise or other environmental stimuli
- Creative: taking in wonder and awe through nature, art, or music
- Emotional: checking in on your own needs, emotions and mood, and pausing on attending to others first — review the Feelings Wheel to develop awareness of your feelings to meet your needs
- Spiritual: generating a feeling of belonging or connection to something beyond the logistical realm of daily life
Don’t feel like you need to make time to get in all the different types of rest. Choose the rest that is relevant to your needs. How you rest may vary day to day, and you may even decide to include different types of rest into a single day.
Knowing where you find energy will help you choose how to relax.
Harshman points to the concept of focusing on energy management in lieu of time management, which was introduced in the book “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” by Tony Schwartz2. The idea is that time is finite, but energy can be created and expanded. Examples of energetic domains include:
- Financial success
- Physical activity
- Service to others/Community
You might notice that your energy is devoted to domains that are obligations rather than what you need for self-care. Identifying where you want your energetic focus to be is the first step in determining your best method of relaxation. Notice which domains feel energizing, depleting or neutral. How would shifting energetic priorities contribute to feeling your best possible self?
It’s important to choose a relaxation activity that you enjoy, rather than one you don’t find as much enjoyment in but think you should do, so you’ll stick with the activity and experience positive results.
It’s normal to feel resistance to changing your priorities, especially when you have other needs that require attention. It might indicate that additional support is needed if you have been managing beyond your capacity for an extended period of time. Enrolling in Multi-session Coaching through Healthy Living, seeking support through the Stanford Faculty Staff Help Center, or moving forward with counseling through your health insurance are effective actions that can help you determine what you need, which boundaries are needed to protect your priorities, and how to develop social support to affirm your commitments.
There are no rules for relaxing.
Often when we think about relaxing, we think about mindfulness, which involves narrowing your focus on sights, sounds, temperature, breath and other kinesthetic sensations. Mindfulness provides self-regulation benefits, however it is not the only way to relax, and you may benefit from another activity depending on where you derive energy and enjoyment.
There is no specific formula of how much time to dedicate to your desired choice of rest. Relaxation can be as simple as putting a device away and watching your children or pets, or taking two breaths in and one longer exhalation3.
“To simplify further, you could think of relaxation as a type of pause that leads toward the expression of your best possible self.”
Prioritize rest and know when to sleep.
Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, but those hours feel harder to control or hold in this season of constant change. The important guiding principle to keep in mind is that external influences and obligations don’t take into account time you need to commit to relaxation and well-being. Coaching, counseling and peer support might instill hope for setting boundaries and gaining encouragement to protect time for relaxation.
When you feel that you should reject an act of self-care to knock things off your to-do list, you should think about if an external obligation is conflicting with an inner need. Write down your top three priorities and provide an immediate relaxation reward to narrow focus and boost commitment.
“Prioritizing a neverending list of tasks can become a default mode that interferes with relaxation and the enjoyment of life.”
Ask yourself how external obligations are taking care of you. If they are not aligned with energetic domains that are personally relevant, you might consider delegating, rallying support, or finding alternative solutions to free up time for relaxation.
If you feel too tired to engage in self-care activities, your body is telling you to sleep more. Sleep deprivation was rampant across the United States prior to the pandemic and has increased in severity as a result of losing our previous way of life4. Experts recommend prioritizing sleep above other activities. Sleep impairment is associated with burnout and health degeneration, and experts recommend prioritizing sleep above other activities.
“Living in a state of relaxation deprivation is not a long-term strategy. It isn’t motivating. Accepting that relaxation will provide you with more energy to meet life demands can help buffer the idea that you should be doing more. Relaxation truly fuels us to be our best selves.”
Healthy Living is offering a two-session class, The Rest of Your Life, that teaches you skills for incorporating rest into your lifestyle.
- Dalton-Smith, S. The 7 types of rest that every person needs. January 6, 2021.
- Schwartz, T. The way we’re working isn’t working. New York, NY: Free Press. 2010.
- Huberman Lab at Stanford. Master stress: Tools for managing stress & anxiety | Episode 10. March 8, 2021.
- Stanford Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. COVID-19 Q&A: Dr. Rachel Manber on sleep disturbances.
By Katie Shumake