by Rick Liva, ND
Doctors often find that one of the primary causes of stress is a racing mind and thinking too much. Simply put, people have a difficult time shutting off thoughts, putting them aside, clearing the mind, and relaxing the body. Constant thinking creates brain activity and releases chemicals in the nerves that are stimulating. It is hard to fall relax and reduce stress with stimulating chemicals running around the body. However, mind clearing and relaxing releases a different set of chemicals that calm, soothe and allow people to let go, relax and decrease stress.
These guidelines if practiced routinely (daily) are extremely powerful and useful to help achieve and maintain a relaxed state and most certainly will improve the quality of one’s life. Let’s face it, we live in a stressful world and most people don’t know how to effectively manage their thoughts, clear their minds, relax and let go of the stressors of life.
What to expect once you have made relaxation, meditation, and mind management a habit:
First, give it time. Relaxing/Meditation takes practice. If you’re expecting to do it ‘perfectly’, you may actually create more stress for yourself than you relieve, and you won’t want to stick with it. You need a willing attitude, an open mind and perseverance to get good at this and make it a useful tool. With practice, it becomes easier and more effective.
Posture - Different postures affect how the energy flows through the body and how alert the mind is in relaxing meditation. Lie down to enhance the letting go of body tension and achieve complete relaxation. Keep your arms at your side and legs uncrossed. Make sure you are really comfortable before beginning.
How Long to Relax/Meditate - Usually 15-30 minutes (goal is 20 minutes) is a good amount of time, although if you are new to this, you may want to start with 5 or 10 and build up. If you relax/meditate regularly, it can be helpful to do so about the same number of minutes each day.
When to Schedule Your Relax/Meditate Time - Although you can relax/meditate at any time, the ideal times are usually in the morning as a start to your day, or in the late afternoon in order to unwind from the activity of the day and be refreshed for the evening. However, anytime is better than none.
How Often to Relax/Meditate - Once daily is recommended and can make a huge difference. Twice a day if needed. A regular routine of relaxation/meditation is invaluable. The benefit derived from meditation starts to carry over into our daily life and activity more when we relax/meditate regularly.
Focus in Relaxation/Meditation – Achieving deep relaxation is all about bringing and keeping your focus and attention on two things, the thoughts in your head and relaxing and letting go of your muscles. Once you are in the proper position and ready, bring your focus to your thoughts. Your primary job is to keep your mind’s attention on something neutral, pleasant and/or relaxing. By doing so you momentarily stop thinking about the everyday stuff of life that causes you stress, tension, and upset. As you start to practice this technique, you will observe that as you attempt to keep your mind focused on something neutral for a period of time (seconds or minutes), your mind drifts and starts thinking about everyday life. When that happens simply be aware that you are there and bring your mind back to the neutral, pleasant or relaxing focus.
Avoid beating yourself up if you frequently lose your focus and think about everyday life. REMEMBER THIS NEXT SENTENCE Losing the focus through a relaxation/meditation session is normal. The best thing to do is bring yourself back to the neutral, pleasant or relaxing mind focus and keep it there as long as you can.
What to focus on in your mind - Anything that works for you. You can create it. The goal is to focus on something neutral, pleasant or relaxing and keep the focus as long as you can.
Thoughts in Relaxation/Meditation - Thoughts arise spontaneously in the mind. They are a natural part of relaxing. The goal of relaxing/meditating is to become more at ease, relaxed and at peace with whatever is happening. Therefore, it is important to not resist anything that comes in, including thoughts. Simply notice that thoughts are present and let them go the way they come — effortlessly. When you find that your mind/thoughts have been caught up in an every day train of thought, easily come back to the focus of your relaxing/meditation.
Our experience of thoughts may change as we relax/meditate. As we disengage the gears of the mind, the mind has an opportunity to settle down. Sometimes you may experience a kind of dream- like state, somewhere between being asleep and awake. This also is a natural experience in relaxing/meditation. There may also be times when there is a state of “no thought”. No matter what happens just take it easy — take it as it comes!
Body Scan Meditation – Learning to Let Go of Stress and Relax Your Muscles
This is a relaxing/meditation technique where you are putting your mind’s focus on individual body parts (scanning) and you are choosing to deeply relax the muscles of that body part.
Breathe in s-l-o-w-l-y and deeply through your nose. Feel your abdomen move upward as your diaphragm contracts and draws air into your lungs. Your chest should not rise noticeably.
While breathing slowly, direct your mind’s attention to your feet. Feel your feet. Curl your toes once to fix your awareness to it. Now relax... as if you can feel your muscles and all the tension melting into the bed and disappearing. Relax this way as you go through each part of your body.
As you breathe in through your nostrils, slowly scan your legs from feet to knee, and up through your thighs. As you breathe out, trace your leg down to your feet. Do this 3 times, then take your mind off your breath and remain with your feet. Relax... as if you can feel your muscles and all the tension melting into the bed and disappearing. If thoughts appear, that's fine. Gently come back to your breath, and shift awareness over to your legs and feet.
Now focus on your stomach and lower abdomen. Feel it r-i-s-i-n-g as you breathe in. Sinking as you exhale. Nice and slow. Your heart probably slows down. This is normal. Remain aware of your stomach/abdomen, your breath... up and down. Become aware of sensations. Relax... as if you can feel your muscles and all the tension melting into the bed and disappearing.
Now follow the same procedure with your arms as you did with your legs. You may clench your fists at first to really direct your awareness to your hands. Breathe... Now scan up along the length of your arms, to your chest. Then down your arms to your hands. Remain there. Breathe. Sense and scan. Relax... as if you can feel your muscles and all the tension melting into the bed and disappearing.
Come back up to your chest, shoulders and head. Continue scanning up along your neck, to your face. Gently clench your jaws and release. Feel the back and top your head. Feel the sensations in your jaws, your throat. Breathe, scan and relax. Pay special attention to your face and jaw. Focus on them and relax deeply. Your jaw may flop open if you are very relaxed, let it happen. Focus on your shoulders and back of your neck, common places for tension to store. Relax... as if you can feel your muscles and all the tension melting into the bed and disappearing.
Now detach your mind’s attention from all body parts. Breathe... Feel how everything is relaxed, resting gently. Just breathe, let any sensation come to you. Accept it as a part of you. Return to your breathing. You can end or go back and focus more and relax tense body parts.
Noise - It’s enjoyable to meditate in a quiet place, but it is not always possible. The key is to not resist noise. Don’t try to ignore the noise or to block it out. Simply let it be and continue with your meditation. Everything is a part of relaxing/meditation — the noise, your thoughts about it, the way the mind may start to resist it, the emotions that arise about it. Treat everything that arises in this practice the same way — let it be, let yourself be!
Falling Asleep - Hopefully in relaxing/meditation we enter a state of “non-resistance”. This would include not resisting sleep if it comes. The goal of relaxing/meditation to establish a state of ease. Therefore, if sleep comes, let it come.
Strong Emotions - When we enter into a state of relaxation in meditation, strong emotions can sometimes arise. This can happen for several reasons. When the mind settles down, we may become aware of an emotion that has been “under the surface” while we are busy in activity and focused on other things. It may also be that deep relaxation causes a kind of “unwinding” or purification, so that any emotion that has been held in the body is released. The relaxed state can be much like the dream state in which various issues are being processed.
If we are uncomfortable with a particular emotion, such as grief, the tendency may be to want to push it away, stuff or ignore it. Emotions are a flow of life energy, and if we resist that flow, the energy becomes “stuck”. If you notice resistance to emotions, let the resistance go. Allow the emotion to be experienced fully and the energy of the emotion can flow and resolve.
On the other hand, when a strong emotion arises, the mind may become very busy interpreting it or dramatizing it with a story about it. If anger arises, for example, the mind might pick up on something that happened in the past, or imagine something happening now as the cause of the anger. This involvement of the mind in the emotion intensifies and feeds it, and also obstructs it from moving through easily. When we become aware of being caught up in a train of thought or a story, let that go and bring the awareness easily back to the focus of the relaxing/meditation.
If the emotion or thought is so strong that you cannot easily come back to your focus (such as the focus on the breath), then simply allow yourself to feel the emotion. Let the awareness locate a physical sensation in the body that is associated with the strong emotion (or thought). Simply continue to feel that sensation in the body. With the awareness easily on the sensation, it will eventually dissolve and the mind will be free to continue with the focus of the relaxing/meditation.
Ending The Relaxing Session - It’s important to take time to come out of relaxing slowly. Remain with your eyes closed for a minute or two. Stretch, move around a bit, and gradually become more active and get up.
Dr. Rick Liva, RPh, ND, is a Naturopathic Physician and the Managing Director at the Connecticut Center for Health, as well as the Chief Medical Officer and Director of Quality at Vital Nutrients in Middletown, CT.