As a culture, we don’t particularly like to slow down. Instead, we prefer to do most things on the go — like shoving a bagel in our mouth as we run out of the house. We tend to view pausing and relaxing as inconvenient, as interruptions that only impede our productivity.
We think of self-care and rest as optional, said Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, Ph.D, a fitness and wellness educator and exercise scientist. We think “that if we are strong and motivated, we won’t need them.” The problem? “[I]f we don’t purposefully plan to relax and restore, we will do so in unproductive and unhealthy ways.”
We might yell at our kids. We might drink too much on the weekends. We might crash on the couch, channel-surfing for hours without actually feeling relaxed or enjoying what we’re watching. We might scroll through our social media feeds, only to feel cranky and disconnected, she said.
Plus, when we’re constantly on the go, “our brains work in overdrive to compensate, and we can have side effects, such as insomnia, anger and irritability, mood swings, anxiety, and depression,” said Rachel Dubrow, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in helping people who feel buried under ongoing stress, relationship issues, anxiety and depression.
Below, you’ll find five simple ways to relax, along with ideas for actually finding the time to unwind.
Practice square breathing.
“This is a Qigong breathing technique, which works well to help you overcome the mental chatter and quiet your mind,” said Bonura, whose work focuses on mindfulness practices and moderate exercise as self-care to promote health and wellness. She noted that many people like to practice square breathing at night to help them calm down and fall asleep.
Here’s how you do it: Inhale to a count of 5; hold the inhale for a count of 5; exhale to a count of 5; and hold the empty space to a count of 5. Do this for 5 minutes, and see how you feel, she said.
“If that feels comfortable, you can gradually extend up to a count of 6, 7 or ideally, 8.” However, if you have a heart condition or high blood pressure, of if you’re pregnant, keep your spaces to a count of 1 or 2, she said. (You shouldn’t be holding your breath.)
Create a playlist.
“Create a playlist of music that makes you feel relaxed or happy,” said Dubrow, who has a private practice in Skokie, Ill. For instance, her clients like Spotify’s “100 Most Relaxing Songs Ever” playlist or the “Chill” category of playlists. Another great option is Pandora (such as Enya Radio).
Try a creative or artistic endeavor.
Studies have found that artistic or creative self-expression is both good for our mental health and our physical health, Bonura said. She shared these examples: singing in a choir; quilting; knitting; ballroom dancing; square dancing; tap dancing; playing an instrument; and using coloring books.
Similarly, Dubrow suggested signing up for a class that interests you. This might be anything from pottery to painting to music. “Finding a new hobby or picking up an old one can help you find the time to relax by doing something you enjoy.”
Practice guided relaxation.
YouTube has an array of free and calming guided videos. Dubrow suggested trying this video and this video (the entire channel is excellent). She recommends this video for people who have anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Take a lavender-infused bath.
Bonura recommended taking a 15- or 20-minute hot bath with essential lavender oil. Some research has suggested that lavender baths may enhance psychological well-being. When taking your bath, dim the lights and close your eyes. If you’d like to read, use a paper book or magazine (“blue light emitted from devices like smartphones and tablets can be stimulating”).
You might be thinking, “Well these ideas sound great. But when am I supposed to do them?” Bonura shared two suggestions: First look for pockets of time that you already have—and use them purposely. A common pocket is waiting. While you’re waiting at the doctor, waiting for a teleconference to begin, or waiting for your child, avoid checking your email or social media. Instead, use that time to meditate, read a novel or knit a scarf.
“Shift your mindset so that those 5 and 10 minutes of waiting here and there become a gift you give yourself, only for the purpose of relaxing and enjoying yourself.”
The second thing, Bonura said, is to identify what you’re doing because you think you should—not because you need or want to. Maybe your “shoulds” stem from peer or social pressure or your own expectations of who you’re “supposed” to be, she said.
Bonura typically sees this with working moms: You end up feeling guilty because you can’t do everything, everything that you’re supposed to be doing. However, “you don’t have to rush your kid to a different extracurricular activity every night of the week. You can just play at the park and both have fun doing nothing.” Or you can say no to events to give you more downtime to relax and play together, she said.
Unless you’re on-call for work, turn off your phone in the evenings, she said. One study found that employees who constantly monitored their smartphones at night were depleted the next morning, which also diminished their engagement at work.
Again, relaxation is actually an important and productive use of our time. The key is to find activities that you enjoy and genuinely help you unwind.