5 Relaxation Myths
One of the questions I ask my clients on a regular basis in my work as a psychotherapist is whether they find it easy to relax. You would be surprised by how many people don’t really know what I mean by that.
Here are some of the responses I get to that question and the myths about relaxation they link to.
Myth 1: Relaxation is ‘doing nothing’
“I don’t do much at all, so yeah, I can relax”
Doing nothing is not the same as relaxation!
Are you ever really ‘doing nothing’ anyway? I think what people mean when they say they are ‘doing nothing’ is that they are not actively engaged in a task.
Maybe they are sitting and staring at the wall.
Maybe they are half-watching TV.
What people are usually doing when they think they are ‘doing nothing’ is:
- Arguing with themselves internally.
- Giving themselves a hard time internally.
None of these things are relaxing!
Relaxation is an active process.
Relaxation is a choice and a decision you make to engage in an activity that relaxes you.
It could be a guided relaxation in which you are visualising, focusing on your breathing, or tensing and relaxing your muscles. It could be an activity that you find soothing like drawing, reading or listening to music.
But whatever relaxation is for you, it definitely isn’t ‘nothing’.
This leads me on to the second myth…
Myth 2: In order to relax, you have to do nothing. Not even think.
“I’ve tried sitting and emptying my mind but it doesn’t work”
Damn right, it doesn’t!
The only times your brain is ‘empty’ of conscious thought is when you are asleep (and not dreaming), unconscious – or dead!
Brains like to think. It is what they do best.
Left unfocused, brains will come up with all kinds of random things for you to over-analyse, worry about and remember and this can impact how we feel emotionally and how we behave as a result. However, relaxation is not about clearing your mind altogether.
If you are engaged with relaxation of any kind, you will have a focus for your attention.
If you are using a visualisation, you are thinking pictorially of a scene.
If you are focusing on your breathing, you are directing your conscious awareness to your breath.
If you are listening to an enjoyable piece of music, you may be remembering positive associations you have with that song or making meaning from the lyrics.
Myth 3: Distraction is the same as relaxation.
“Yeah, I can relax. I watch a lot of Netflix”
Of course, watching Netflix has its place.
With this myth, it can be tricky because it depends more on the way in which you are doing something than what you are actually doing.
You could be watching TV as a distraction. You could be watching TV as a form of relaxation.
You could be reading as a distraction. You could be reading as a form of relaxation.
You could be walking as a distraction. You could be walking as a form of relaxation.
Here is how to tell which one it is:
When we distract ourselves it is with the aim of escaping from something, namely:
- Our thoughts
- Our emotions
- Our physical state
Distraction can work in the short term to some extent. If, like me, you have young children then you will know the power of distraction to help them move on from a grazed knee or a bumped head (once cuddles have been properly administered, of course).
The trouble is, we are often trying to distract ourselves from stress, dissatisfaction, frustration, worry, rumination… but:
- You are unlikely to be fully engaged with the distraction e.g. not fully able to concentrate on what you are doing.
- Distraction is less likely to fit with the things you value e.g. watching whatever is on TV rather than watching something that truly interests you.
- The difficult thoughts and emotions don’t really go anywhere in the long term.
Distraction may give you a temporary escape is not the same as relaxation.
Relaxation is about engaging with something positive rather than escaping something negative.
Of course, relaxation can give us a breather from difficult thoughts, emotions or physical states, but it is with the aim of gaining a resource rather than purely for escape.
Relaxation builds resilience in the face of difficult thoughts, emotions and physical states.
When you are relaxing or engaging in a relaxing activity:
- You are more likely to feel fully engaged with it and be gaining enjoyment or satisfaction from it.
- It is more likely to fit with your values and interests.
- It helps you to feel restored and more able to face difficult thoughts and emotions or to gain a different perspective on them.
Myth 4: Numbing out is the same as relaxation
“I can only relax by drinking wine”
In the same way that distraction is about temporary escape, so is numbing.
Numbing gives the illusion of relaxation but ultimately it is an imposter.
In the same ways as myth 3, numbing is not building any internal resource for you. In fact, it is likely doing the opposite and leading you to under-estimate your ability to cope without it.
If numbing out is your main relaxation strategy, I would suggest that it is all the more important to learn some good quality relaxation techniques and emotion regulation tools.
Myth 5: Learning to relax is too hard
“I don’t have the time”
“I don’t have the patience”
“I don’t like the voice on my relaxation CD”
Relaxation does not have to be difficult. It can be as simple as learning how to breathe from the diaphragm.
If you did want to go deeper than that, the time and patience it will take you to learn to relax properly will give you so much more in return.
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