Picture a few precious moments of relaxation and what do you see yourself doing? Lying on the couch scrolling through your phone? Stretching out on the beach sun-baking?
While the benefits of taking five are undeniable, to really relax in a way that brings you all the good stuff (think reduced blood pressure, improved concentration and mood, and lower levels of frustration) requires purpose, thought and intention.
But firstly, if you’re serious about this relaxation business, then put your phone down. While it’s tempting to enjoy some mindless scrolling, extensive phone use has actually been shown to lower wellbeing - due to your phone’s pesky ability to provoke negative feelings and diminish your sense of purpose. It can also stimulate your brain and interfere with sleep quality. In short, your phone is not your chillaxation buddy.
To help get most out of your downtime, here are some simple rituals you can follow to create a soothing state of bliss.
Find the right space
Relaxation is very personal, so listen to your internal dialogue and find a space that feels “right” for you. It may involve a particular place in your house that you associate with calm, such as your bedroom. Try clearing away clutter, as our brains are programmed to like order, so a messy environment can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety.
Or, find a space outside in a park or garden, surrounded by the sights, sounds and scents of nature, which has been proven to lower stress, improve memory, increase energy and enhance feelings of vitality. There are a lot of emotional benefits to being outside in nature, so make the most of them.
Free your mind
So, now that you’re physically comfortable, what can you do to get your internal thoughts in the right space? It all comes back to that staple of yogis and therapists alike: breathwork.
Start by observing your breath and focus as you inhale and exhale. If you’re feeling particularly anxious or stressed, imagine all the worries in your body coming together into your chest when you inhale, then leaving your body when you exhale and dissipating in front of you.
You can also try “box breathing”, where you inhale to the count of four, hold your breath for four, exhale to four, and then count to four before breathing in again. It’s used by U.S. Navy SEALs to reduce stress in situations of high pressure, so think about what it can do for you.
Relax, just do it
You may be content simply to sit in quiet solitude and focus on breathwork. Alternatively, you might like to try an activity that helps draw your attention away from outside noise.
Informal mindfulness practices can be great for enabling you to slow down and create a safe, non-judgemental space for yourself, through directing your attention to a simple task. Here are a few options to think about:
A Japanese practice also known as shinrin-yoku, forest bathing literally encompasses being amongst trees – no hiking, no step-counting – simply sitting or wandering peacefully through woodland while taking in the colours, sounds and smells around you. The benefits are so endearing that Japan actually made forest bathing part of a public health program in the 1980s. Find your own little area of woodland and spend time simply focusing on the natural beauty around you.
Colouring in is not just a way to delight your inner child. With mindful colouring, you focus your entire attention on the activity – the weight of the pencil, feel of the paper and the shades and scenes you are creating in front of you. Let go of thoughts about the past or future, as your attention is only on the act of colouring. It has been shown that this simple, playful act may reduce anxiety, while improving attention and creative cognition. No wonder kids seem so carefree.
Take a bath
Water is a very healing entity, as many cultures have known for a long time. The Japanese practice of public bathhouses, known as sento, has long been a popular way to cleanse the body and mind. Hot baths can help improve breathing and it’s even believed they help the body release endorphins. Get in, breathe deeply, and focus on the feel of the water against your skin. What more reason do you need to fill up the tub?
So next time you have a few moments to yourself and want to switch off, consider these steps to help you make the most of your downtime, in a way that really benefits your body and mind.
Written by Victoria Hanlon.