You just came home after a stressful day at work, and need to relax. You collapse onto your favorite spot on the couch and flick on the TV, or pull out your phone and start reading through all the latest posts on Facebook. Before you know it, an hour has elapsed with absolutely nothing useful accomplished. Feeling hungry at this point, you stumble into the kitchen and microwave something to eat. You then proceed to repeat the first activity or a similar one, for another hour. At this point you start to look for something a bit more stimulating. Perhaps a sports game you are actually interested in or a weekly show that you were waiting for is now on. You can spend the next couple of hours on that, and then you may drift back into the aimless channel or web surfing before heading off to bed.
If this describes a typical evening for you, you are not alone. Studies show that the average American watches an incredible amount of time watching TV and reading various blogs and social media posts. Surprising as it may seem, relaxation has a saturation point. You cannot relax indefinitely without crumpling into either boredom, fear of missing out or lack of purpose. You might feel that you need many more hours before these become serious concerns, and at some level you may be correct. However, studies show that the maximum benefit gained from a relaxing activity declines rapidly. The benefit of a 2 hour break barely exceeds that of a 1 hour break and the difference between a 3 hour break and a 2 hour break is even smaller.
Taking a nap is actually the best way to relax. This shuts down all of your systems and allows your brain to fully reset and restore itself. A quick 15 to 20 minute nap is perfect for most people and will accomplish what many hours of TV and social media never will. Not everyone loves napping, and napping upon arriving home does not work for most people anyway. Assuming that you will not be napping, what should be your routine to reduce overall stress?
Start with an activity that differs in function from your work. There are three general categories of strain that require varied relaxation techniques. If your vocation is mentally taxing, choose activities that allow your brain to operate on energy saver mode. If you are physically active, select something that completely relaxes your body. If your work is emotionally draining or demanding, find an activity that will allow you to clear your emotions and give your brain the break it needs.
If you examine your typical evening ritual, you may find that you are engaging in activities that continue the stresses you were experiencing throughout the day. Email overload is often replaced with endless social media posts to catch up on, busy work with sorting the mail and labor with a workout. These activities serve to increase stress levels instead of the desired relaxation.
You need to rethink how you relax to improve the quality of your downtime. Start by determining what it is that you need a break from. Is it mental stress, physical stress, emotional stress or some combination thereof? Whatever it is, you need to find an appropriate activity that will provide the desired relief. For each type of stress choose an activity that does not require the same type of exertion and generally promoted a relaxing of this part of your brain. I will go through each type of stress in detail.
Mental stress is created primarily in two forms. Too much mental strain, e.g. deadlines, tedious mathematics, too much detail, overwhelm etc. The other form is too little mental stimulation. This is what happens when you have a job that provides little to no mental effort and is mostly about mindless procedures repeated endlessly. The two forms of mental stress require opposite forms of relaxation. For the overwhelmed variety, you will need to rest your mental faculties. Choose an activity that allows you to keep mental activity to a minimum. Funny videos on YouTube are perfect, or read an article in a non-technical magazine. You don’t need to do this for an extended period of time. Even 15 to 20 minutes is usually enough. Then you can watch or do something more mentally stimulating. For individuals who suffer from lack of mental effort, choose an activity that will engage you mentally. Read a technical article, watch a finance video, listen to an intellectual news program (there are still some of these) or do a crossword puzzle. Again, 15 to 20 minutes should be enough to eliminate that feeling of blah that comes from hours of mindless misery. If you find that 15 to 20 minutes doesn’t cut it for you, try 30 or 45 minutes. After a small amount of experimentation you will arrive at the amount of time required to create the desired relaxation.
Now I turn to physical stress. This is the simplest form of stress but is often confused for tiredness. Spending your day doing physically exhausting work places a great deal of stress on your body. For pure health and wellbeing purposes, it is obviously beneficial to get some exercise into your day. But, spending all day in the chair does not stress the body directly, and as such does not require a stress intervention. If you are physically stressed you need to relax your body. Take a good long shower or better yet soak in the tub if you can, this will do wonders to relax you. Do not fall into the trap of working out after a day of physical exertion. Many people hit the gym after a long day’s work – that is good for the office worker. But, if you are doing physical labor all day, you need to relax your body. For physical relaxation the recovery time is a little longer than for mental relaxation. Your muscles need time to rebuild after a long day and you will likely need at least 1 to 2 hours before your body really slows down. When body building it is generally accepted not to repeat exercises of the same muscle group more often than ever other day. Unfortunately, your job does not let you show up only every other day. The least you can do for your body is let it have the maximum down time between stresses. If you really want to work out, choose only muscle groups that you are not straining during your regular work, or work those out on the second day of your weekend.
A lot of thought is necessary to shift away from emotional types of stress. I will distinguish between situational stress and relationship stress. Situational stress relates to the type of work you do. If you are in medicine and especially if you work in a hospital, you come across many stressful situations daily. It could be a patient that nearly dies (or worse, actually dies), or the irate patient complaining about the perceived mishandling of a situation, or the shortage of a particular medication that forces you to make triage type decisions numerous times a day. You can be a mental health professional dealing with multiple psychological disorders or a divorce mediator dealing with a difficult divorce proceeding. All of these emotional stresses relate to the actual work that you are doing. By contrast, relationship stress is stress caused by the people you work with. This could be your micromanaging boss, or your really annoying co-worker who is always borrowing money from you, or the person from accounting who is always reminding you to book your time and save your receipts.
Dealing with these differing emotional stressors requires special approaches. Emotional stress is the result of discord between your internal rhythm and your surroundings. To repair emotional stress through relaxation, you need to select activities that align your inner feelings with your external experience. If you are generally an organized person and had a chaotic day, spend a few minutes organizing a drawer or closet. This is a great way to relax and you may even accomplish something on your to do list at the same time. If you are generally a calm person and the day was full of emergency type situations, you need to choose an activity that will promote an internal and external sense of calm. Throw together a simple dinner recipe that you will enjoy, or sketch a picture of a nature scene. Any activity that promotes calm, while engaging your body, will work wonders at improving your emotional state.
To relax from a relationship type stress, you will want to choose an activity with a known positive interpersonal outcome. Call up a good friend. Texting does not have the same positive effect as a phone call, because you lose much of the non-textual parts of communication that exist in a phone conversation. Venting to a friend about a difficult boss or co-worker can reduce stress by a surprising amount. Alternatively, head out of your house and socialize. There are many options available to you. In addition to the typical bar, restaurant or coffee shop, you can go to a local mall and strike up a conversation with a shop keeper or salesperson. Any positive conversation will relax the relationship stress that you are experiencing.
Another effective relaxation technique for dealing with emotional stress is journaling. If finding other people to talk to is difficult, or you just don’t feel like talking to anyone, write down your feelings. You will find that just committing your feelings to words makes a difference in how you feel, and strengthens your ability to deal with emotional concerns. This does not have to be a lengthy activity and does not have to be performed daily to be effective. Whenever you are feeling stressed, you can sit down and write briefly what you are feeling. This quick exercise has proven transformative for many people.
Now that you know how to best unwind, hit the comments and share what you have discovered in your own attempts at relaxation. I love to hear from you.