By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder
How relaxed are you really?
To see, let’s try a little exercise. Join me in doing this easy Sheng Zhen Meditation movement called “The Universe Trembles” that Master Li Junfeng leads in this Facebook video.
As you do this simple bouncing movement, what happens in your body? Do your legs tire quickly? Do your shoulders feel knotted or are they well-oiled hinges? Are your arms stiff as a board or are they bouncing unreservedly at your side?
When I first tried this movement, I found my arms stuck resolutely to my side. With a sense of surprise, it dawned on me that I wasn’t relaxed as I initially thought. In fact, I wasn’t relaxed at all.
Yet, it’s that deep relaxation—that letting go—that ultimately will help us have the capacity to flow through life’s challenges as we age. To explain this, I’d like to offer an analogy. A young tree (like the human body) usually has flexibility in its trunk and branches that allow it to bend easily in bad weather. But with growth and passing years, the tree (like the human body) often becomes more rigid (and potentially more diseased), making it prone to snapping in two when high winds hit.
Don’t believe me? Just ask my long-time massage therapist, Ruth. When she first met me in the early 2000s, I was working in a high-power job, going to graduate school, and in a long-distance caregiving role. I didn’t realize it, but my body was becoming more and more rigid. Eventually, my neck locked up to the point where I couldn’t turn my head; Ruth had to work on me consistently for several weeks to get the muscles to release. I also was getting moodier—and I can’t even begin to fathom what that increasingly high level of stress was doing to my body’s chemistry.
Fast forward 12 years later when I was no longer in a high-power job, caregiving for parents or in graduate school. Equally as important, I was regularly practicing Sheng Zhen Meditation, a series of both moving and non-moving meditations. I was back on Ruth’s table for a routine massage when she commented on the huge difference in my body’s state of relaxation—and how this significantly lower level of tension would trigger a range of health benefits.
The Complexity of Relaxation
Relaxation is actually a complex topic that we don’t really contemplate. Recently, I came across a Facebook post by Deng Ming-Dao, a Chinese-American author, artist, philosopher, teacher, and martial artist, where he talks about taiji (also known as tai chi):
“Relaxation is the lack of tension, and yet we have so many layers of tension to resolve. There is the difficult of learning Taiji, that most intricate set of movements. There is the anxiety of performance while trying to keep up with your classmates and trying to satisfy the critical eye of your teacher. There is coping with injury and aging and your own limitations. There is our daily grind: the stress from work or arguments, our worries, our disappointments, and our reaching for new but distant heights.
So when the Taiji teachers tell us to relax, there are many tensions we have to release. We can even get tense trying to let go! The task is really to transcend our inhibitions.
Once we do, we’ll feel an incredible flow of energy coupled with a serenity that the normal person will never know. This is the power of fulfillment—and it becomes a power that can be called up at will.”
The Downside of Chronic Stress
Our world promotes and seems to thrive on doing more, yet there’s a downside. While stress itself can be good—it’s how we evolved to save ourselves from lions, tigers, and bears—chronic stress can wreak havoc on our physical, mental, and emotional health.
Physically, constant stress can lead to headaches, difficulty sleeping, upset stomach, weight gain or loss, and muscle tension, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Furthermore, prolonged stress weakens the immune system—which lowers our body’s critical defenses that are so important now as we face the increasing threat of infectious diseases.
But that’s not all. Chronic stress can also trigger a ripple effect that affects your physical health in even more profound ways. A 2015 paper published in Future Science OA and others since then reports that researchers have found that chronic stress changes certain brain areas, including the prefrontal cortex and limbic system, which can cause cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dysfunctions, and increase the risk of psychiatric disorders. Additionally, chronic stress can lead to chronic inflammation; combined, these two factors contribute to cardiovascular dysfunctions, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune syndromes, and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders.
Being a female also changes the stress response, probably due to hormonal differences. Women are more likely to report stress symptoms such as headaches and upset stomachs. We also are more likely to have mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, that worsen with stress, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office on Women’s Health.
An SOS (Signs of Stress) Call
Additionally, long-term stress has a strong effect on women’s moods and anxiety. Being in a constant stage of stress causes the nervous system to be in hyperarousal. According to Somatic Experiencing International, signs that you’re in a hyperarousal state include:
Often feeling anxious, on edge, “busy” and filled with fast thoughts.
Having difficulty feeling at ease or sitting still for too long.
Finding that resting feels uncomfortable.
Thriving in high intensity.
Feeling an urgency to do things NOW, which leads you to be hypervigilant, reactive and defensive.
Additionally, Yale Medicine reports that being in a state of chronic stress can show up as aches and pains, a change in social behavior, low energy, unfocused and cloudy thinking, changes in appetite, increased alcohol or drug use, changes in emotional responses to others, and emotional withdrawal.
So how can we learn to relax? Here are some ideas, based on my personal experiences:
Be mindful of what you are around.
We may not be aware of it, but everything around us causes sensations in our body. Just think about it –how does your body feel sitting in a park among big old trees as opposed to standing in the middle of a crowded shopping mall?
Being mindful of these sensations also extend to the information and media we consume. Recently, I joined a friend to go see “Avatar 2: The Way of Water.” Instead of enjoying myself, I found myself cringing and physically pulling myself up into a ball as I watched the violent attacks on the main characters and the whale-like beings. I left the movie theater stressed instead of energized, and it took a full day to lower my body’s cortisol rate and feel normal.
While you might believe that I’m adverse to violence on screen, that’s not true. I’m adverse to violence being portrayed purely for violence’s sake; movies such as “Dune,” the various Avenger offerings, and even “Saving Private Ryan” did not trigger the type of stressful response that I had in the latest “Avatar” movie.
What this experience taught me is to really listen to the body. What is it saying to you when it ingests information whether it’s a television show, movie, book, video or social media post? Does your body savor the information or does it want to get away from it as quickly as possible? When your body talks, listen!
Be mindful of what you eat.
Chronic stress also can be lowered by food. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can lower cortisol by eating fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats—basically, embracing a Mediterranean diet. Courtney Barth, a dietitian at the clinic, recommends beginning with foods that are high in magnesium, such as avocados, bananas, broccoli, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and spinach. Also add in foods high in vitamin B (particularly B-12), omega-3 fatty acids, and protein. Don’t forget gut-healthy foods, such as sauerkraut and Greek yogurt. On the flip side, avoid processed foods, alcohol, caffeine, soda, high-sugar foods, and simple carbs, which can increase chronic stress.
Leave room in your schedule.
I have tended to pack my days really full, always hearing my mother’s and society’s voice in my ear encouraging me to be productive. But this approach means I don’t leave any wiggle room between freelance assignments, appointments, my “to-do” list and my “want to-do” list. That causes stress to build without abatement, especially if I procrastinate on something, which does happen. So I’m trying to get better about completing commitments in a timely manner, letting go of to-dos that don’t resonate, and providing space for decompression and my “want to do” list.
Remove the clutter.
Feng shui and Marie Kondo both suggest that everything should have its place. I haven’t always practiced this concept—and have found that as the clutter increases, so does my stress level. To offset this imbalance, I have really started letting go of the “stuff” and being more mindful about what I bring into my home. Despite what marketers tell us, more isn’t better; it’s just more stuff to deal with—and ultimately, we’re adding more stress that we don’t need.
Purposefully cultivate relaxation.
Through teaching meditation, I’ve learned that we can mindfully and deeply relax our own body. The popular saying is, “Where the mind goes, qi flows”—and the same is true for gaining a sense of true relaxation.
Want to try it? Sit quietly (or lie down), close your eyes, and bring your attention to the top of your head. Invite your scalp to relax. Visualize that you’re in a warm shower as the water hits your head and see if
you can get a sense of ease and comfort. Once you start to feel your muscles in your scalp begin to let go, continue to repeat the process and invite that same feeling to move slowly and purposefully down your body, part by part. Mentally mention areas you keep stress—such as the jaw hinge or the shoulder blades—and keep your mind focused on that area until you feel the muscles relax.
If you do this process enough, over time you eventually notice where you’re carrying stress, and you can actually invite a particular body part to relax almost at will. I’ve used this technique multiple times and regularly lead my Sheng Zhen class participants in doing this. It’s something that is easy, free, and incredibly nourishing to the body.
There are other meditation options, too, that can help you relax. I’ve listed three (including a moving meditation, which often is easier for meditation novices who have difficulty sitting still):
Stress is part of modern life—but we can choose how we want to engage with it. By limiting our exposure to stressful experiences and then mindfully incorporating self-care practices into our daily routine, we can lower our stress levels. Our health, our relationships, and our outlook will thank us for taking these self-nurturing steps.
How is your stress level? And what helps you lower your stress?