How to Relax – Part I

Just relax. Sounds simple, right? I used to think so, until someone actually taught me how to relax. Suddenly I realized that everything I’d been doing to “relax” had never really given my mind and body the much-needed break I was seeking.

As the holiday season winds up, so do we. So it’s important to understand how to unwind ourselves. And even though we are the owners and operators of our minds and bodies, no one ever gave us an owner’s manual. So most of us don’t even know that we don’t know how to relax. In this two-part series, I will discuss relaxing, and how to take steps to give your mind and body a break and reduce your stress today.

Relaxing is More Than Just Taking Time Off.

We walk around with tense shoulders and chests, minds racing with worries, running late, crossing off tasks on our list, and texting, or checking email and facebook when we have a spare moment. We don’t know how to slow down, much less relax.

When you are tightly wound, even when you stop doing all of that stuff that you do, it’s not enough. Have you ever tried to relax, and found yourself simply thinking about non-relaxing things, tapping your foot, or worrying? It’s like we live with little hamsters inside of us, running on imaginary wheels that never stop.

Without taking actual steps to relax, just taking time away from work or studying to “relax” doesn’t stop that little hamster.

To Truly Relax, You Must First Stop Doing

To really let your mind and body rest, you must set aside time to yourself that is not goal driven or stress inducing. In short, you must stop doing. This can be deceivingly difficult because it’s not just the activity, but your mindset about the activity that can be the problem.

When you take time to yourself, first ask: Is the thing I’m doing to relax actually relaxing me? Take stock of your thoughts, body, and emotional state before and after your favorite “relaxing” activity, such as watching tv, reading a book or the paper, or exercising. To give your mind and body a break, your relaxing activity should be (1) non-goal driven, and (2) de-stressing.

During a non-goal driven activity, you are not trying to succeed, win, do it right, or accomplish anything. For many, the desire to succeed or win continues to plague them during a seemingly “relaxing” activity like playing video games or exercising. This means that the hamster is still running and they are no more relaxed.

Ask yourself: When I do this activity, can I do it in such a way that I don’t care if I succeed? If that answer is no, you should either work to change your mindset, or find a different unwinding activity. For example, even meditation, if done from a goal driven place (“I must find peace…I must meditate correctly”) can be the opposite of relaxing.

Supposed unwinding activities like watching TV or reading can also be stress-inducing rather than relaxing. For example, if you love to watch intense suspense or drama on TV or in movies, ask yourself: Am I leaving this show feeling more relaxed or more tense? Suspenseful programs can be an escape, but if you get caught up in the drama and find your body getting more tense, the TV is actually inducing, rather than relieving your stress. Similarly, reading books or the paper, depending on the content, may add more stress to your body and mind. Pay close attention to the content of what you watch and read, and your reaction.

To truly relax, you should first find activities that make you feel calm. Activities like walking, watching a sunset, cooking, taking a bath or hot shower to unwind, observing nature, or taking care of animals, are great choices. You want to find an un-stressful, calming activity that you can do without trying to win or do it right.

In Part II of this blog series, I will discuss the steps you can take during your relaxing activity to unwind and de-stress your mind and body so that you can truly relax.

Lauren Fire is the founder of the Mind Over Bar Course, an innovative course that focuses only on the mental challenges of the bar exam. The course teaches in-the-moment practices you can use to deal with any mental challenge and rock the bar exam.