Mindful relaxation - a free resource you can access anytime
Perhaps now more than ever, knowing how to feel calm and centred is of value. But how easy or difficult is it for you to feel relaxed?
For many people, relaxation is the by-product of another activity, achieved when exercising, engaging in a hobby or socialising with friends. All things that may certainly have been compromised at one time or another during the pandemic. Yet, anyone who has practised meditation and certain types of yoga could perhaps tell you that both meditation and yoga practise can involve learning to feel relaxed whilst simultaneously attaining and then holding some quite challenging poses.
This split-brain skillset is not dissimilar to the kinds of techniques that are encouraged in many forms of mindfulness-based psychotherapies and some cognitive behavioural therapies. Namely, the potential to observe what mind and body are up to whilst maintaining a certain amount of detachment. Moreover, being able to draw away from anxious mood states and attain some form of calm, grounded inner space can be an invaluable resource when learning to manage stress better and avoid pushing the self to the point of burnout.
A basic technique
Happily, mindful relaxation is something that most of us could access anytime if we wanted to and it’s absolutely free. All you need is a quiet, comfortable space where you can be undisturbed for as little as 10 minutes. Make sure you are warm enough and have your feet flat on the floor and your back adequately supported.
If you feel you would like to, you can close your eyes and start to move away from what has been happening in your day and go inside: to vast resources of relaxation. Take a few moments with the eyes closed just to breathe deeply, noticing the temperature of the air as it comes in (is it cooler?) and as it goes out (is it warmer?) Just spend a few moments noticing this subtle change as you breathe in and out.
Then start to take your awareness to your feet as they touch the ground and really notice the ground as it supports you. Feel your sit-bones supported by the chair and your back: all the way up your spine to the crown of your head. You can imagine your feet have grown deep roots, right down into the earth beneath. Imagine them tunnelling all the way down into the earth’s core. When they have gone as deep as they can, imagine a colour, a bright blue, yellow, purple – whatever colour makes you feel calm – and imagine it travelling up the roots as you inhale. Become aware of it entering your feet and making its way up your legs, through your torso, feel it filling the heart space, the chest, the throat area. Let it soften the facial muscles, allowing you to let go of any expression, to relax the mouth, the tongue, smooth the forehead.
Let the eyes sink deep into the eye sockets, relax the temples, relax inside the head. If a thought arises, just label it “thought” and let it drift past like a cloud in the sky.
When you inhale your colour, you are breathing in relaxation. When you breathe out, you are breathing out tension. Be aware of saying this to yourself as you breathe in and breathe out:
Breathing in relaxation
Breathing out tension
As you exhale, you can imagine the colour coming down from the crown of your head, through the face, the throat, the heart space, the chest, your abdomen, sit-bones, legs and finally your feet, all the way back down the roots and deep into the earth. As it travels, it is taking with it all the tension you might have been experiencing in your body.
Keep drawing on the breath and the image you have of your colour, drawing relaxation up, into the body on the inhale, letting it percolate within each part of your body, the chest cavity, throat, face, inside the head. Then letting it take all the tension with it, back down the body and out through the feet, into the roots on the exhale. Keep repeating this for six complete rounds of breath: inhaling and exhaling, using the colour to deepen relaxation and release tension.
Then, still with the eyes closed, become aware of the centre of your chest. Really feel the space inside your chest. Perhaps you can imagine the heart centre. In your imagination, it might be that you can feel as if this space is broadening and growing. You might become aware of a warmth or a bright flame inside the chest and that this also might seem to be growing. It could be that you could spend a few moments enjoying the space and warmth that you have created in the heart centre. If thoughts arise, again, just label them “thought” and return to imagining this space inside the heart centre. If you become too distracted by stories or thoughts, return to focusing on the breath: the inhale and the exhale:
Breathing in relaxation
Breathing out tension
Supported by clinical research
Research suggests that being able to self-soothe or better regulate our emotional states links to our capacity to feel reassured, safe and have a sense of wellbeing. As mammals, we rely on primary caregivers during our early years and these interactions form the basis of our first attachment systems. If these attachment relationships are less than they might be, it can set up a pattern of relating anxiously towards the self and in relationships with others.
The expectation might be that we will not have our needs adequately met, or even that we could be physically or emotionally harmed. The degree to which humans are able to regulate emotions is believed to have evolved alongside our attachment systems. Regulating emotions effectively involves the ability to register and respond to most situations we encounter in an appropriate way.
Early ape-like humans spent much of their time being chased (and eaten) by predators on the African savannah. Consequently, as humans evolved, our brains developed a highly sensitive ‘threat system’. Unfortunately, although for most of us the threat of being chased by lions is not a regular occurrence, our brains can still behave as if it was. Put another way, we are hard-wired for threat and this can come at a potential cost for our wellbeing since the complex nature of our brains and our emotional systems means that emotional threats can seem just as dangerous as physical ones.
Significantly, research continues to suggest that over activation of the threat system can have a significant effect on not just our mental health but also the immune, endocrine and other biological systems within the body.
Research studies in recent decades also highlight that attachment relationships which include a heightened degree of shame and criticism can mean that our brain’s threat system habitually dominates and overrides the areas of the brain associated with self-soothing. A core strand of research into this area has been undertaken by researchers/practitioners interested in understanding the psychological benefits of developing a compassionate mind. Basically, learning to feel compassionate and warm towards the self even if your experiences have made you feel unlovable and reluctant to trust or feel warm towards others.
As a practitioner who has worked for many years with people experiencing the after-effects of poor and/or abusive attachment relationships, I have found the principles and techniques offered by compassion focused therapy (CFT) are an invaluable touchstone when undertaking this sort of work with someone. The approach draws on developmental, social and evolutionary psychology. It also incorporates many of the tenets of Buddhism and the latest understanding from neuroscience about how our minds (and bodies) respond to both good and bad elements of the world around us.
Basically, it seems that if people have been unkind to us in childhood, we find it very hard to be kind to ourselves. There are psychological reasons for this that involve it being too difficult for a child to imagine that their caregiver is “bad”. This would make the day-to-day world too unsafe. Instead, a child takes the “badness” on themselves: “If I was better, the bad things wouldn’t be happening to me.” Often the task in therapy is to acknowledge the formerly protective function of this particular psychological manoeuvre and then to start to gently work with feelings that couldn’t be engaged with in younger years.
The mindful relaxation technique offered above is one example of the many ways in which someone might begin to become more familiar with the resources contained within their internal world. Practising in this way is a form of self-care that boosts the self-soothing system. It affirms that the person is engaging in a positive way with themselves and learning to develop a sense of inner safety and warmth. Ultimately, this might also generate greater understanding and compassion for the self, others and the world around them.