How to Really Relax Right Now

For most of us, it’s tough to relax in the best of circumstances—that is, when we have the same routines, a commute that provides solo time, childcare, date nights, and other comforting rituals.

But when we’re in the midst of a pandemic, winding down can feel impossible. Your mind might be ruminating about all kinds of fears: fear of the unknown, your health, your loved ones’ health, your financial situation, and the economic future of the country, said Lisa M. Schab, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in the greater Chicago area.

You also might be struggling with juggling work, caring for your kids, and helping them with distance learning. You might be trying to keep up with new projects using new technology you can’t figure out. You might be coping with losing your job.

In short, relaxation might feel out of reach right now. But it doesn’t have to be completely off the table. Here’s a range of suggestions that might help:

Let everyone be responsible for themselves. We’re able to relax more when we loosen our grip on controlling things we can’t control. For example, we can’t control how our neighbors act, how often our parents visit the grocery store, or whether our kids are enthusiastic about school, said Kathleen Smith, Ph.D, LPC, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. and author of the new book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

When you find yourself trying to control others’ thoughts and behavior, Smith suggested reciting one of these mantras: “I will step back and let people be responsible for themselves” or “I will make space for people to surprise me with their capability.”

Move your body. We experience anxiety and stress physically when stress hormones—such as adrenaline—are released, said Schab, author of 18 self-help books and workbooks, including her newest book Put Your Feelings Here:  A Creative DBT Journal for Teens with Intense Emotions. “This causes tightened muscles, dilated pupils, more shallow breathing and an increase in heart rate—all of which ramp us up and make it hard to relax.”

One solution is to move your body. According to Schab, this could mean taking a walk, running, practicing yoga, stretching, swimming, dancing, or biking—in other words, any kind of movement that feels good to you will work.

Return to simple joys. According to Smith, simple joys aren’t “indulgences; they’re necessities in a time like this.” For example, instead of tackling an ambitious reading list, reread your favorite novels, she said. This has an added bonus: “When we’re really engaged in a story about something completely unrelated [to the current reality], it’s like taking a mini mental vacation,” said Schab.

Focus on what hasn’t changed. It feels like everything around us has shifted. Still, many important things have remained the same. For instance, you might remind yourself that “you are safe (enough) at home, well, and have access to a community that will likely see you and understand what you’re going through,” said Schekeva Hall, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and lifestyle wellness coach in Brooklyn, N.Y.

You also might remind yourself that your love for your family, your favorite stories, beautiful sunsets, and that mountain of laundry have all remained the same. You can even make a list of these things, and reread it when you feel stressed and unsteady.

Imagine a peaceful image. After closing your eyes, Schab suggested visualizing a word, phrase, symbol, or picture that helps you feel calm. For example, you might imagine a field of sunflowers, the Star of David, your dog, or the phrase “I am calm” floating in the sky.

When your mind naturally wanders, “bring your attention back to your symbol of peace,” Schab said. “Repeat this over and over until your breathing slows and the tension in your muscles relaxes.”

Maximize meditation. Hall often suggests her clients combine a loving-kindness meditation with progressive muscle relaxation exercises. Loving-kindness encourages self-compassion and gratitude, while progressive muscle relaxation immediately relieves tension that the body carries through the day, she said.

There are many versions of loving-kindness meditation. In one version, you begin by reciting the below:

“May I be safe.

May I be peaceful.

May I be healthy.

May I live with ease.”

Then direct these words toward someone you love, a neutral person, or a difficult person by simply replacing “I” with “you.” Lastly, say these words with everyone in mind.

Make sure the phrases you use actually resonate with you. In the book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, Kristin Neff, Ph.D, notes that instead of “May I,” we can use alternatives such as: “I’d like,” “I hope,” or “I want.” You can also add “as possible” as in, “May I be as safe as possible,” or “May I be as peaceful as possible.”

Follow your loving-kindness meditation with gradually tightening and then relaxing a different muscle group, going from your head to your toes.

During the pandemic, it might feel wrong to unwind. “It’s easy for people to feel guilty right now if they have time to relax when many people still have to show up to work, homeschool their kids, or put themselves in harm’s way to help others,” Smith said.

However, “taking care of yourself allows you to be a better resource to those around you.” And taking care of yourself simply feels good—and you deserve to feel good, especially during such an emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausting time.

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