Purposeful Relaxation: Getting the most out of down time
Relaxation is a powerful tool for combating anxiety and stress. And it’s an important part of our self-care. But sometimes we come away from supposedly restful activities not feeling particularly restored or refreshed. In fact, maybe we come away from activities feeling more tired and drained than before.
And this is because we don’t realize there’s a difference between passive relaxation and purposeful relaxation.
Purposeful relaxation is a form of restorative self-care that focuses on slowing down the body’s stress response system. The key elements of purposeful relaxation are being in the moment, and connecting with your mind and body. It is an active form of relaxation, and can be far more physically and psychologically restorative than a passive approach.
How does stress work in the body?
Let’s understand first how stress works on the body. Stress activates the body’s stress response system and includes a number of physical effects: increased blood pressure, tense muscles, and rapid, shallow breathing.
Over time, chronic stress leads to a chronically activated stress response system, which can leave us feeling (understandably!) exhausted. Considering the numerous stressors we’ve collectively experienced as a society over the past year-and-a-half on top of our everyday stressors, it’s more important than ever before to make time for purposeful relaxation.
What is the difference between passive relaxation and purposeful relaxation
For some, passive relaxation might take the form of watching TV while stretched out on the couch, playing video games, taking a nap, etc. It is a time for the body to be still while the mind is elsewhere (ie: distracted). At times, this is a much-needed form of relaxation, and can give the physical body a time to rest.
However, it’s important to reflect on what this form of relaxation means for you and how it may, or may not, be helping. Consider how you feel after passive relaxation: do you feel refreshed? Energized? Are you motivated to take on the next parts or your day? Do you feel satisfied with what this moment of passive relaxation has afforded you?
If passive relaxation does not always provide that sense of satisfaction and restoration, this is because this form of relaxation is often more about distraction rather than being present with yourself and your chosen activity. With passive relaxation, a person may be on autopilot, or their thoughts may be focused elsewhere.
In contrast, purposeful relaxation is much more active. This might sound a little counterintuitive at first, but this just means being more intentional and focused on the mind/body connection.
With purposeful relaxation, we are actively practicing skills that help counter the body’s stress response system.
With active relaxation, a person intentionally works to calm down from this state of arousal, allowing the body to recover. Active relaxation can use skills like learning how to slow down our breathing or how to relax tension in our muscles through activities like mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga.
Tips for putting some purpose into your relaxation and self-care plans
To make hobbies and other enjoyable activities a more active form of relaxation, consider incorporating some Mindfulness into how you approach your activity.
Try taking yourself off autopilot, and be in the present moment, giving your attention—and intention—to your chosen activity. Whether you are drawing, working out, reading a book, or sitting down with a cup of hot tea, give yourself permission to be in the here and now, engaged with what is going on around you and within you.
If you notice your mind wandering to future worries, “To-Do” lists, or other distractions, simply bring yourself back to the present moment and the activity at hand. For example, when you work out, pay attention to the feel of your body moving or the sensation of air entering and leaving your lungs with each breath. If you are enjoying a warm cup of tea, slow down and notice the aroma of your beverage, the heat of the mug in your hands, and the flavors unfolding on your tongue.
When it comes to relaxation, paying attention to what your mind and body need is the first step to enjoying a quality moment of personal restoration. Balancing passive relaxation with some more active forms of relaxation can be a wonderful way to deepen your self-care.