The importance of relaxation, exercise for better sleep:
One solution to stress is to change our living circumstances. For instance, if we have always been city-dwellers, we may find it possible to move to the country, away from the tensions of city life. Or we may alter our responses to the sources of stress.
The first solution, even if it were desirable or possible for most people, is a false one. The very business of living, whether in the country or the city, involves us in unavoidable stressful situations from births, relationships, illness, and death to examinations, board meetings, rush-hour travel, work deadlines, coping with small children, and so on.
Some fortunate people have such a sanguine temperament that they can emerge unflustered from even the most stressful situations. They can make their daily journey to work during the rush hour reading a book or just pondering inner thoughts, remaining calm and conserving their energy for the day ahead.
For many others, the journey itself causes tension and irritation. They are frustrated by the delays, and become claustrophobic on crowded busses, trains, or tubes, feeling threatened by the pressure of so many bodies.
Blood pressure rises, adrenalin and noradrenaline are secreted into the bloodstream, muscles tense, teeth are clenched, heads throb, and bodies are keyed up and exhausted before the working day begins. Most of us have, at times, experienced this or similar situations.
Although relaxation techniques cannot magically transform us into calm human beings who remain impervious to stress, if practiced regularly they can help us to cultivate a greater awareness of self, a greater sensitivity to the way our bodies function, and to control and quieten the stress responses.
It is important, however, that anyone practicing a relaxation technique should do so regularly, preferably every day, because in this way it becomes absorbed into the pattern of life.
You don’t have to think about it or make a conscious effort to fit it in. Otherwise, it would be so easy for this discipline to become simply another source of stress.
The second reason for practicing relaxation techniques regularly is that the effects are cumulative. Like any retraining of the body, and particularly one that involves the wearing of the body away from an addiction (whether cigarettes, alcohol, or stress), it takes time.
Also, you should practice relaxation techniques without expectations. Make this one area of your life that is not goal-oriented, where you do not have to achieve anything, compete with anyone, or please anyone but yourself. This is your time, your space, in which to get to know yourself and your inner center.
The techniques help you to release consciously your whole body and involve getting to know where and how to hold tension and how to release that tension.
They focus in turn on different parts of the body – limbs, stomach, neck head – allowing you to relax each until your whole body is still, relaxed and peaceful. This state is quite different from that of ‘flopping’. You feel very alert and aware, without being tense.
Gradually you can incorporate what you learn into your daily life even when not consciously practicing the technique. You become tuned to recognizing points and moments of tension and are able to release and let go of these causes of stress without going through the full relaxation process.
Remember that no amount of practicing a technique can supplant good, deep sleep. Sleep is a healer, and we all need it to regenerate our bodies, to repair and restore tissues, cells, and the immune system. The quality of our sleep is important too.
If we sleep lightly or curled up in tension we are unlikely to awaken refreshed. We have already seen that dreaming is also a vital part of sleep – each night we move several times between ‘orthodox’ or dreamless sleep and the dreaming state called REM.
Sleeping pills inhibit REM sleep and, if deprived of this regularly, we become irritable, restless, or anxious. Regular practice of a relaxation technique can improve the quality of your sleep.
Sleeping Pills And Tranquillizers:
Every woman who is offered a prescription should ask what are the actions and possible side effects of the drug being prescribed. If it is explained to you that these are tranquilizers and will make you feel calmer, you need to consider whether you really would feel better if you suffered any of the common side effects of the drugs.
In the British National Formulary, the annual authoritative publication on drugs and their uses, the possible side effects of Valium (the most commonly prescribed tranquilizer) are listed as drowsiness, dizziness, unsteadiness, confusion, dry mouth, and hypersensitivity reactions, including skin rashes and breathing difficulties.
In terms of the ultimate benefits of these drugs, you alone must decide whether their sedative effects are worth risking any or all of these side effects.
The British National Formulary does not provide much information regarding long-term addiction but it states quite clearly: ‘Although there is a tendency to prescribe these drugs to almost anyone with stress-related symptoms, unhappiness, or minor physical disease, their use in many situations is unjustified.’
Long-term dependency on sleeping pills and tranquilizers is common. The most serious long-term effect is that it has a depressant, and sometimes paralyzing, action on our decision-making ability.
All drugs and so-called stimulants, like alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee, ultimately have a depressant effect on the body (and on the mind) by slowing down the conduction of nerve stimuli in the brain and suppressing the action of the hypothalamus (our alarm apparatus).
The hypothalamus initiates our reactions to fear, sex, and sleep, so suppression of its activity can result in disturbed behavior in all of these areas.
Dreaming sleep is suppressed by sleeping pills, and some of the most unpleasant withdrawal symptoms after stopping the pills are nightmares, interrupted sleep, and frightening fantasies as the body over-compensates and re-adjusts after such deprivation.
Other withdrawal symptoms include shivering, shaking, suicidal depression, extreme fatigue, severe anxiety, and confusion.
- 34 percent of British women have been prescribed tranquilizers or sleeping pills at some time.
- 75 percent of the 13 million prescriptions written annually for tranquilizers are for women. This means that every year, nearly 10 million women take tranquilizers.
- Tranquilizers work by damping down intelligence and self-perception.
Sleep And Relaxation:
A state somewhere between waking and dreaming characterizes the first period of sleep. Gradually there is a falling off in muscular tension and the body functions slow right down until the deepest stage of sleep is reached – a stage termed NREM sleep, which stands for non-rapid eye movement.
NREM sleep is followed by a lighter, dreaming phase in which the closed eyes move rapidly – hence the name REM sleep. During these phases the electrical brain waves speed up; heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure undergo rapid fluctuations, especially during a flurry of rapid eye movement. Most of the body’s muscles are relaxed, although in men the penis may be erect. Blood flows rapidly through the brain; its constituent cells are being renewed.
In the NREM phases, brain waves are large and slow and the growth hormone is pumped into the blood to repair and renew skin and other tissues. The whole cycle, from dropping off to sleep to the end of the first dreaming phase (REM sleep) takes less than two hours.
Beginners must be taught Hatha Yoga by a competent teacher. It is a practical exercise system designed to work with and through the body to expand awareness. The postures (asanas) are practiced slowly and rhythmically and affect the central nervous system and the glandular, structural, and organic systems of the body.
Yoga means union or integration, and this is the effect it has on those who practice the combination of physical stretching and twisting, the controlled and conscious breathing which accompanies every posture, and the concentration brought to bear on the movement.
It is also a very good complement to strenuous physical activity, focusing as it does on calm, concentrated sustained stretch. When you have mastered the principles and postures you can practice yoga alone at home, although it is also a continuous learning process and most people prefer to attend a regular weekly class.
Complete relaxation involves focusing your mind on each part of your body in turn until the whole of you is completely relaxed. The process takes about 15 minutes and is performed lying down with closed eyes and with your arms by your sides.
You may find it comfortable to have a small cushion under your knees. Focus your total attention on each section of your body in turn, starting with your feet, and gently repeat to yourself inwardly a few times, ‘My feet are completely relaxed.’
See in your mind’s eye and feel your feet become deeply relaxed. Progress to relax each part of your body in turn, from ankles to calves, thighs, stomach, hips, back, neck, right up to the top of your head; then relax your shoulders, arms, and hands, until completely relaxed.
Lie quietly, feeling the weight of your muscles supported by the floor or bed. If you want to sink even deeper into a relaxed state you have only to tell yourself, ‘I am getting more and more relaxed, sinking deeper and deeper.’
This form of self-hypnosis is very effective. You should feel the slight warm tingling of the blood and energy now going freely up and down your body and your mind should be still but open and aware. Afterward, you will feel refreshed and at peace with yourself.
Another way to relax parts of your body is to tense and stretch them fully first. You can do this for your whole body, focusing on each part for a few seconds for a 15-minute sequence as in the previous technique. Or you can spend a few minutes at your desk or in the middle of the day.
Just tensing and relaxing specific areas prone to tension, such as the neck and shoulder region or thighs, and abdominal area. The tensing is done with an inhalation and the relaxation with an exhalation. Keep all movements steady and rhythmic.
Massage is a marvelous way to relax tight muscles. Many of us still think of massage in the Swedish massage image: a whole-body massage, vigorous or even painful, lengthy, and expensive. However, there are many gentler forms and also areas you can massage for yourself.
Swedish massage uses stroking, kneading, pressure, and percussion movements for both remedial and general health massage. It is called ‘Swedish massage’ because it was developed by Peter Henrik Ling, the Swedish gymnast who established the renowned massage school in Stockholm.
Shiatsu sometimes called acupressure, uses the fingers (shi) to apply pressure (atsu) to particular points on the body associated with the vital organs, to release and stimulate energy flow.
Intuitive massage involves using a variety of techniques, according to what the practitioner feels to be appropriate for the individual and what the client desires: stroking, kneading, friction, holding, pulsing, or pressure.
The principles are to remain constantly in hand contact with the body you are massaging and allow your sense of the person’s body and her voiced guidance to direct your movements. This is a gentle form of massage, relying mainly on light and heavy stroking movements.
Whereas the first two forms of massage need to be practiced by a trained therapist, anyone can learn the basics of intuitive massage. A general principle is to massage towards the heart and not to massage varicose veins or areas of skin infection.
The principle of the Alexander technique, devised by F.M. Alexander in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is that of unlearning bad habits and the unhealthy ways we use our bodies (in sitting, standing, walking, and so on) and replacing them with better ways of functioning.
An Australian who worked as an actor, Alexander’s career came to an end when he lost his voice on stage. He found that the cause of this problem was his tendency to pull his head back, shortening the back of his neck. By lifting his head and lengthening his spine, he found that correct posture could solve the problem.
Practice of the Alexander Technique has a beneficial effect on body tension and our ability to cope with stress, and it has another benefit for women.
Forty percent of women consult a doctor for back pain during their lives, and although the Alexander Technique may not necessarily provide immediate relief.
As a long-term learning process, it can be invaluable in freeing us from the recurrence of these pains, as well as enhancing our health and energy generally because it focuses on the spine and posture.
The Feldenkrais Method:
Whereas the Alexander Technique tends to focus on the spine and on posture, another body re-education method, the Feldenkrais Method focuses on the neuromuscular patterns in the body. Developed over many years since the 1940s by Moshe Feldenkrais, ex-sportsman and judo black belt, this method is well known in the United States and is rapidly gaining recognition over here.
One of the beauties of Feldenkrais exercises is that they are done lying down, which both reduces the gravitational pull on the spine and induces a more relaxed attitude in the student. Group classes are called Awareness Through Movement and follow a set pattern of gentle, repetitive exercises body. Private lessons, called Functional Integration, follow the needs of the individual and are generally given for remedial purposes.
Both the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method have in common the principle that the body reflects the mind and vice versa. Our bad postural and functioning habits are as individual to us as our personality traits and reflect similar sloppy or distorted patterns of thought.
The other principle central to both techniques is the conviction that through the body we can affect and change our minds and our feelings. Depression may thus show up in a depressed, slouching, or held-in body posture. Through retraining the body the emotional pattern can also be unlearned; both can be replaced with a well-tuned, better functioning mind/body whole.
There are a number of breathing exercises which you can practice for yourself and which are helpful in relaxing your whole body. When we are emotionally distressed we breathe fast or arhythmically or hold our breath for a few seconds between inhalation and exhalation, and when we are tense we inhibit our breathing.
In fact, many people only breathe with about a quarter of their lung capacity a great deal of the time. The rhythm of the lungs and the ability to take in oxygen and metabolize it are closely connected with neurological functioning, so becoming aware of and enhancing your breathing should have a beneficial effect on your nerves and state of mind.
This is deep breathing. Lie on your back with one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. Concentrate on filling the lower part of your lungs with a slow, deep breath, then exhale slowly. The hand on your abdomen should rise as you inhale and sink as you exhale. The hand on your chest should hardly move at all. Do this exercise for 10 to 15 minutes before you go to sleep.
Even Breathing: Adopt a similar position as for the previous exercise or sit comfortably in a chair where you do not slouch, so leaving your abdominal and chest area open and free. While inhaling and exhaling deeply, concentrate on keeping an even, slow flow throughout. Allow a brief pause after the exhalation before the next breath. This is your moment of complete stillness.
Both these exercises, because of their rhythmic and expansive nature, induce a state of calm. Practice them whenever you like, for about 10 to 15 minutes, preferably in a quiet place, perhaps in your bedroom before you go to sleep and when you wake.