learn to relax?
December 25, 2009 12:39 AM   Subscribe

I don't know how to relax.

I literally do not know how to relax. I was never taught how and I never learned how. I have lived my whole life awaiting the next outcome. I have managed to do so much with the ambition I have but I don't know how to slow down and contemplate. What should I do? What can I do? Can you recommend a teacher, a retreat, a place, a thought, a venture?
posted by parmanparman to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
posted by radioamy at 12:49 AM on December 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Get out to nature and concentrate on enjoying the view. Don't do anything other than sit there and enjoy the view. Don't plan on visiting some orchard and picking apples or skiing or rafting or anything; just sit in a chair and look at the view. It gets easier, I promise.

Once you've mastered view-looking, you can move up to long baths and reading books for pleasure.
posted by Mizu at 12:58 AM on December 25, 2009

Unfortunately, learning how to relax is not something you can just schedule or sign up for. But you can get better at it through the practice of quieting the mind. It's really hard at first! The good news is, there are LOTS of different paths to take you there. You could try yoga, meditation, daydreaming, the art of mindfulness, therapy, massage, and all sorts of fun things! Even strenuous activities can do it...because relaxing is a state of mind. At first though, you've got to learn and strengthen those neural pathways that mean "chill out now" to your being. When I first started doing yoga, my mind was racing, racing, racing. I'd listen to what the instructor would say, "let go", "keep your thoughts still", etc. It just made me feel like I was failing at this one stupid, simple task. But then I realized that that's why yoga is hard. I am a beginner. Others can show up and jump right into the 'pose' and hold it. I can't. My mind is already holding onto to too many things. This is essentially what you're learning to put down when you're trying to do something as seemingly simple as "relaxing".

Also, if you try these things for a while and you find that you really can't get to the peaceful state of mind, then it's time to consider some more heavy duty measures, such as licensed therapy and/or medication.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:05 AM on December 25, 2009

Practice mindfulness. Be aware - and appreciative - of what you're doing every moment you do it.

For example, say you're at the beach, sitting in the dunes, looking over the bay. How does the sun feel on your skin? Is the wind raising the hair on your arms, can you feel individual grains of sand pecking at your skin with each gust? Smell the air, can you feel the salt in your nostrils? How does the ground feel beneath you, each piece of grass pressing into you. Look over the bay, watch the waves slowly form, break, and spread out across the wet sand in a lacy filligree.

Concentrate on your breathing, how does breath feel in your lungs? The important thing is to forget about everything but what you're doing.

I am paraphrasing, because I can't remember or find, but there is a great zen quote to the effect of: "The past has already happened, immutable as stone; the future is nothing but a dream, unknowable. All that exists, the now, the moment."

This is what I focus on when trying to relax. How am I feeling right now. Of course, you could just play some video games, or read a book or some shit, but that's what works for me. :)
posted by smoke at 1:28 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Run a warm bath and just sit there, maybe with the radio or some other passive entertainment. For bonus points, get a bit drunk first.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 1:29 AM on December 25, 2009

Can you recommend a teacher, a retreat, a place, a thought, a venture?

Try the Yale Divinity graduate program, or perhaps teach philosophy at a local community college. Some people work towards degrees — an ABD may not be as rewarding as a doctorate, but unfocused studies may bring you some peace and relaxation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:55 AM on December 25, 2009

I find that I'm most relaxed in two situations, hopefully combined: when I know there is nothing that immediately needs my attention, and when I'm doing something for/by myself, like working on a project with no deadline in the workshop...tinkering, as it were.

For the first, try this: analyze all of the things that normally grasp for your time, and ask if it really matters if they're put off until, say, tomorrow. If they truly do need your attention now, get them done. But I think if you look objectively, you'll find a lot, most--maybe all--things can be put off for a short while. Make that decision, to put them off, and do it with good conscience. You weighed them, they were found wanting, and you'll tackle them with full energy when you pick them back up again.

If there are irritating things in your environment, escape them. Loud neighbors? Go out. The outside world a madhouse? Stay in.

Now, take your new-found free time and either do something you'd normally never consider, like reading a trashy novel that you know you'll enjoy but can never find the time, taking a long soak, napping in front of the TV, tinkering in your workshop, playing a game...whatever. There is but one rule of a relaxation task: it doesn't have to get done, and if it gets done it doesn't have to be perfect. If you decide to try your hand at cooking an elaborate dinner, you do so with the attitude that it's going to be fun--but you're also going to have the number of the delivery joint up by the phone so if it goes south you can laugh about it and get a tasty pizza in its place.

Relaxation tasks should not involve anyone other than you unless there are absolutely no expectations built in by either party. So try your elaborate meal for two only if the other person is going to laugh about the disaster (if it comes to that) and enjoy the pizza with you.

And don't try to fool yourself into doing a "relaxing" task that's actually a to-do item which has consequences if it goes wrong. Repainting your home office might sound like a great project but if you choose the wrong color or can't get it done before you need to use the office again, it's going to be stressful.

But a field trip to daydream about redecorating your office can be fun, if you're wired that way. Some idle sketching, visiting a few stores which sell furniture and paint, stopping for a coffee and a pastry, and then imaging yourself in your new space while you soak in the tub when you get home...that's enjoyable. Or loosely plan your dream home, or dream vacation. Look at brochures, read online, call friends and ask them about their trips, sample some authentic cuisine in a local restaurant. The only rule is to not let reality into the dream, so no worrying about cost or other practicalities. The goal here isn't to actually get something accomplished, its to allow yourself to daydream about something awesome.

I think you get the idea. Good luck!
posted by maxwelton at 2:20 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

meditation. there's lots of different types but mantra meditation's the one that sorts me out.
posted by 6am at 6:01 AM on December 25, 2009

I'd like to strongly second yoga-- possibly like you I'm too advanced a master of stressing for hot baths and sitting meditations to slow my mental hamster wheel down. I always feel like there's something else I ought to be doing.. An hour of yoga though has an absolutely uncanny effect on my physical and mental tension. I think a few months into my first yoga course was the first time in my life I actually understood what 'relaxed' felt like!

Other stuff I personally do:

Blind contour drawings. Really a mindfulness meditation, but with the presence of an external focus and a physical action. A good way to focus on process rather than result; there's a more thorough description in The Natural Way to Draw.

Knitting! and, looong walks in nature.

If yoga and knitting are too girly, you could try a 'soft' martial art, that comes with set routines, like Tai Chi maybe? and, I don't know, what's the macho equivalent of knitting? woodworking? Anyways what all these have in common, come to think of it, is physically following a traditional pattern-- very soothing to the soul.
posted by Erasmouse at 6:32 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Relaxing is not something you learn, but something you are able to do when you don't have to avoid being who you are. Activity serves both as a distraction and as a confirmation of your worth through achievement. You can "achieve" relaxation but it won't be integrated with the rest of your personality unless you become comfortable being a relaxed person.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:51 AM on December 25, 2009

(Some) martial arts, yoga, art, meditation, sports, playing an instrument: anything that takes you away from thinking about yourself, and forces you into being in the moment. Relaxation is generally the state of being present, not yearning for anything other than where and what is happening right now.
posted by ellF at 7:37 AM on December 25, 2009

Watch a dog, or a cat. If you don't have one, try your nearest friend with one. Lie still right next to it, and watch every whisker and sleepy paw twitch. Animals know what it is to relax.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:14 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Make love.
Without your brain.
posted by Paris Elk at 11:19 AM on December 25, 2009

Count your breaths. Just natural breaths, not forced ones - just as they come, fast or slow. You can count both inhales and exhales (I do) or just inhales.
It focuses the mind wonderfully.
I learned this is a Buddhist meditation class.

You can keep counting til you forget while you needed to do so or count to 33 and start all over.

I love it as its so simple - no equipment, pads, mats needed. Good luck.
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 12:59 PM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

One thing that has helped me in the past (and thank you for this question -- I think it's time for me to take it up again) is something called 'Progressive Relaxation'.
posted by trip and a half at 5:52 PM on December 25, 2009

I suffer from the same problem. The solution is simple: At those times when you feel you should be relaxed, you must tell yourself (and believe it) that you have nothing better to do that what you are doing at that moment.
posted by minimii at 6:39 AM on December 26, 2009


dammit. too wound up to type properly. ;-)
posted by minimii at 6:40 AM on December 26, 2009

I came in here to suggest exactly what Tullyogallaghan said, and I was genuinely surprised to find that 'breathing' as a suggestion, hadn't been mentioned further up in the thread.

I recently had the opportunity to hear American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield speak, and he pointed out that things like breath-focus, or meditation are 'practices' in that the benefits may not be immediately experienced, but given time, allow for these calming experiences to become more ingrained in our bodily experiences.

One important thing I'd add to just sitting and counting your breathes, is that when you count, do so without judgment; that is, without thinking, "Oh no, I just forgot which breath that was...was it 6 or 7? Oh no, I'm failing at this. Crap, this proves I can't relax." You can have thoughts come into your head while you're doing this, but just go back to counting your breaths as soon as you can, counting to whatever you can, and starting over when need be.

It'll become much easier with, you guess it, practice.

Good luck.
posted by cheeken at 10:58 AM on December 26, 2009

One more thing, very quick: If you're really committed to learning how to relax, you may want to look into finding a psychotherapist who specializes in biofeedback, where they hook you up to a heart-rate monitor, and then teach you ways to be aware of and lower that rate consciously.

This may or may not be overkill for you, but I thought I'd throw it out there, just in case.
posted by cheeken at 11:11 AM on December 26, 2009

don't get too wound up about not being relaxed. it just isn't all that it is cracked up to be.
posted by dougiedd at 5:34 PM on December 26, 2009

You don't have to turn off your brain to relax. I, for example, fire up the PS3 and play some Street Fighter IV when I need to unwind, because I've gotten to know myself well enough that it helps me to relax overall.

The trick is to learn what it is that actually makes you feel relaxed.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:52 PM on December 26, 2009

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