Relaxive practice and reflective practice: Or why just chillaxing ain't enough!
There’s much in the world these days to genuinely destabilise us: Abrupt shifts in geopolitics, the growing potentials of war, climate change and The Sixth Great Extinction, the low but insidious and chronic stress posed by digital overwhelm and fragile conditions of employment.
Phew! No wonder at the end of the day we might just want to crack open a can or sink into a bubble bath; after a day of stress and discombobulation, soothing away our anxiety and just feeling good seems like the best option. But does this really work?
For some us, self-care-chillaxing for some-is challenging; our so-called striving, performance driven work culture obviates against this, positioning it as a weakness or 'shirking' and for some of us, there are more family and gender based reasons why we might not just relax into feeling good.
What’s actually happening when our outer (and hence our inner) world destabilises is that our reptilian brain becomes activated and our fight or flight system goes online. Too much of this, or too traumatic the intensity, and it stays online, becomes in effect threat saturated and we head into a possible mental health crisis.
Some of this can be 'soothed away' with a hot bath, a cool beer, a walk-in nature, a massage, or that most potent of all soothers, great sex. These kinds of activities promote the activation of our soothing system, pouring healthy bonding neurochemicals such as oxytocin and vasopressin into our bodies as an antidote to the crippling amygdala hijack of fight and flight-they help us relax. These are 'relaxive' practices.
But are they enough to promote real change?
Self-care and self-compassionate practices are profoundly important as methods and approaches in re-relating to ourselves, often to that imp inside us that diminishes or puts us down, that refuses to let us relax; but self-compassionate practices may also be a preparation for what we might do next, which is to make deeper changes in our lives.
If we walk along a road, fall in a hole and get hurt, it’s a good idea to go home and soothe ourselves, but if we keep walking along the road and keep falling in the hole, then plainly soothing and self-compassion is not enough.
That’s why we need something else: reflexive practice.
Reflexivity has described as “the capacity of language and of thought - of any system of signification - to turn or bend back upon itself, to become an object to itself, and to refer to itself" and it involves a sustained inquiry into altering not just our relationship to what’s happening, but to understand and change our lives - to change what’s happening to cause us to pursue conditions and habits that keep our often-disabling behaviour, feelings and thoughts trapped.
Reflective practice encourages us to take a deeper dive into ourselves, our personal and relational history and patterns not just to vent, discharge and care, but also to identify, unlock the disabling patterns we find ourselves caught up in, and grow.
Essentially there are three aspects to this: The technique of settling our agitated minds (mindfulness) promoting a self-caring attitude (compassionate practices) and altitude, or involving ourselves in the very real possibility of development. To date it might appear that the only mindfulness based organisation in the UK that takes this deeply seriously is the Mindfulness Association, who have as part of their overall curriculum courses in insight, or “what’s happening underneath what’s happening”.
Mindfulness practices such as tranquillity meditation are wonderful and radically important practices to enable us to settle our anxious thoughts and feelings, but good mindfulness curriculums take us further still into inquiry and insight, into our intra and interpersonal stuck patterns and repetitive, disabling cycles.
Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this place the 'swamplands' in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, and uses a somewhat Jungian lens of myth and story to peer into this, but how this plays out is as much in our own kitchen sink dramas - often our own internal Jeremy Kyle Show - as it is in myth and symbol.
Some reflexive practices might include:
- Journaling to reflect back over weeks or months, spotting repetitive habits.
- Exploring your family and your broader relational 'family tree' to identify what might be embedded in the family culture.
- Unpacking the context and culture you find yourself in using the social GRRACCESS i.e. gender, race, religion, age, culture, class, education, sexuality and spirituality: How these influence your past and present living.
- Recognising past trauma that might have frozen your ability to feel yet is still running your choices (you may need therapy here).
- Getting out of your head and into your body: Somatic inquiry and grounding, releasing into somatic freedom.
- Building resources and resilience to help in difficult times e.g. social networks of support, creating robust boundaries and connections.
- Understanding your past and/or current couple relationships and your couple fit (this might be the 'big daddy' of them all).
Relaxive practices such as chilling, self-care, tranquillity meditation are critically important to our mental and emotional health, probably our spiritual health too - we really can’t do much with an agitated mind - but we also might need to dig little deeper into our selfhood with a reflexive inquiry, bend a little back upon ourselves with an inquiry that creates insight and understanding so we don’t get caught up again on the same road, falling into the same hole.
In the broadest sense, this is a kind of best-of-East-meets-best-of-West dovetailing; meditation meets psychotherapy meets neuroscience; a truly mindful counselling.
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