What does it mean to be self-caring? What can we do for ourselves that will produce more energy, more satisfaction, and an alternative to all the addictive possibilities available to us? What does relaxation have to do with it?
Self-care requires that we take a daily preventative approach to the care of our bodies. Relaxation is an essential underpinning of a healthy lifestyle. Most of us need help to slow the quickened pace of our lives, having lost or forgotten the gentle art of calming and centering. People with the ability to elicit a “relaxation response” find that they become less reactive to stressful events. Techniques include: diaphragmatic breathing; shifting attention from the future or the past to the present; focusing on “being” rather than “doing”; and concentrating on internal rather than external matters.
Since the mechanisms that affect stress are not directly accessible to the conscious mind, centering techniques take us to a more relaxed state. Centering involves the following ways of deliberately shifting the focus of attention so that we alter our awareness of our experience in the moment.
Grounding helps us to detach from upsetting emotional reactions. By shifting our focus away from ourselves, grounding helps us to control the feelings associated with threat. Thus we can take measured action rather than react impulsively. To ground yourself, pay attention to some aspect of your physical environment: picture the shape, size, and color of near by objects; focus on the smells and the sounds you perceive; or describe what your body touches.
Attend to breathing. When stressed, our breathing is usually flat, short, and labored. Our breath goes into our upper chest or shoulders. This type of breathing increases tension. Instead, breathe into your stomach at a natural pace. This is diaphragmatic breathing. In this type of breathing, the stomach pushes out as the breath goes in, creating a calming effect. This is the way babies breathe and how we ourselves breathe when asleep!
Attend to posture. Crooked, stiff, or off-balance describes the body under stress. When sitting, our legs may be stiff and both legs and arms may be crossed in a defensive posture. When standing, we lock our knees. Our body is tense. Instead, uncross your legs and arms, sit or stand up straight using your backbone to support your body, and place your feet firmly on the floor. Relax your legs. These grounding actions support balance and strength.
Cultivate mindfulness. This centering technique focuses our attention on what is happening to us in the immediate moment, rather than attending to other people, the past, or the future. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing and your body. Becoming gently aware of what you see, hear, or feel in a deliberate way will, after a few moments, slow your reaction. You can also do this while taking a walk or sitting quietly by yourself by focusing on your physical sensations and breathing.
The following instructions elicit the relaxation response for many people:
- Choose a mental image (a word, number, phrase, or visual picture) or your own breathing on which to focus;
- Find a safe place where you won?t be interrupted and position yourself comfortably;
- Close your eyes when you are ready;
- Take slow and natural breaths, focusing on your image in time with the breaths;
- Acknowledge distracting thoughts (which are normal) and go back to your focus; and
- Work up to repeating this procedure 10 to 20 minutes, once or twice a day.
This article was adapted from Growing Ourselves Up: A Guide to Recovery and Self-Esteem, with permission of the author, Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.