Reclaiming Relaxation

National Relaxation Day is this Thursday (August 15) which makes now a good time to talk about what “relaxation” means and looks like in our lives and our work. Relaxation and work seems like an oxymoron. Culturally (especially if you’re reading this in the U.S.), yes. Biologically, no. Our bodies’ systems and parts are designed for a dance between effort and recovery, stress and restoration, doing and resting. You could say we’ve got a serious relaxation deficit to talk about.

It’s a radical notion to associate relaxation with work in our go-go-go, productivity-hacking, device-pinging society. If you think of “relaxation” as sitting on the beach with an umbrella drink and “work” in its dominant American form (stressing out, running against the clock, jam-packing your schedule, sweating your to-do list and slaying your competition) as its opposite, it is indeed impossible for these two activities to coexist. For many professionals relaxation is something you earn and delay until you get the green light from some external source.

But here’s the deal — this is a false construct, and it’s one that we can collectively liberate ourselves of. The actual definition of “relax” is to loosen, slacken, or make lax, and its true opposite is to tense or tighten. That means work is not the opposite of relaxation and that relaxation is something that is available to us anytime. We can choose it, practice it, claim it. We can be more relaxing than tensing and tightening no matter where we are or what we’re doing, even when we’re working. Doesn’t that sound nice? Yeah, I’m feeling more relaxed already, too!

1: Relaxation is yours for the taking

As you ponder this, here’s further inspiration: choosing relaxation isn’t just some act of frivolity or privilege or counter-culture living in 2019 America, it is a decision to embrace the belief that there are no expiration dates on fun and play and pleasure. It wouldn’t even be an exaggeration to say it as a life-saving act. Our societal hero-worship of tension and stress and busyness as proxies for functional adulting is eroding our health and quality of life on individual and community levels and we are paying an exorbitant price. We are disconnected, distracted, and dis-eased. As researcher and storyteller Brené Brown broke it down in her June 2010 TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability”: “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.” Yikes. As a mom, I’m gonna add this: our kids are watching us and learning from us, the same way we picked up these habits from our parents. So, multigenerational yikes.

We’re operating in chronic scarcity mode. Our minds are addictively zoomed in on what we don’t have enough of (time and money, mostly) and we go about our days dogged by feeling we’re not-enough, and we behave accordingly. We tell ourselves “I can’t relax until I _____[do something that builds my stress level enough to justify relaxing].” We are mindlessly subscribing to an entire way of living predicated on the notion that “relaxation” is only something we can justify once we’ve whittled ourselves down to the nub doing enough to prove our worthiness.

I call bullshit on this entire situation — it’s a racket and we and our children, families, and communities are the ones holding the bag. Indicators of public health data along with those of social and societal wellness support this position. So does the design of the human body.

2: Your nervous system knows best

At this point it’s worth me acknowledging that you are about to get a very simplified description of a super-complex biological system, and I am not a medical professional merely an owner of one nervous system that has taught me a lot.

Your nervous system, for example, is perfect proof that relaxation is designed into our bodies’ optimal functionality. There are two parts of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system which processes stress of all kinds all day long through “fight/flight/freeze” responses and the parasympathetic nervous system which conducts a “rest and digest” response. These parts are meant to operate in balanced collaboration, but the mainstream way of life in the U.S. with its elevated and unabated levels of stress keeps the “fight or flight” part of the nervous system firing for too long. This in turn floods our bodies with high levels of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) and sends our minds reaching for things to numb the effects of these unnatural conditions. Since we aren’t societally-inclined to tap the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system, when it tries to chime in, we decline its call over and over. As a result, we’re on a hamster wheel of societally-endorsed self-destruction (reminder: “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history”) and eventually, our bodies go on strike.

I learned this the hard way almost 9 years ago, which I’ll share here in the hopes I can spare some of you such a hard lesson. It started with months of deep exhaustion that wouldn’t resolve with sleep, intermittent dizziness, and an inconclusive physical. My relatively non-specific symptoms concerned me because there was no explanation for them and it was affecting my daily life more and more. Things took a dramatic turn when I fell in the bathroom in the middle of the night while I was helping our young daughter weather a stomach flu. My blood pressure had crashed, and I ended up in the ER with a smashed face and head. Hours later, I was discharged with twenty stitches in my face and concussion protocol instructions.

This turned out to be how I learned that relaxation is necessary not optional, and that the costs of failing to relax can be severe. The message was clear, delivered by my body when it had no other recourse: “Hey you! There’s a limit to my tolerance of your absurd disregard of my intended functionality and wise design. You were in the red zone for too long. I had to slow you down somehow.” I honestly had no idea that resting and digesting was part of what my body needed to be healthy. I was both shocked and humbled, and I was able to clearly see that I sure hadn’t been making it easy for that part of my nervous system to do its thing.

I’ve been on the road to happily reclaiming relaxation ever since that experience. It’s an ongoing process, and not always easy. Unlearning my old reality of running on constant stress has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and also one of the best. Relaxation, mindfulness, fun, and self-care are woven into my work and home schedule, and the benefits can’t be argued with. Really, when I think about, almost a decade after that bathroom wake-up call, relaxation has become part of how I approach my life every day.

One of my friends says that her favorite part of her weekly yoga class is when her teacher gets everyone into a challenging pose and then cues them to “Scan for the places where you can soften.” I love this reminder that relaxation and effort do not need to wait their turn, but can rather learn to dance together in the same space whether its a yoga mat, a run, an important work meeting, parenting teenagers, or any experience that carries some tension with it.

3: The ROI of integrating relaxation into business

Relaxation is also embedded into the values and culture of Asana Consulting the communications and marketing consulting business I started four years after my fall. The people who power my business are my greatest business assets, which makes their self-care one of my top business priorities. There’s lots of research available that businesses that create cultures which value and care for employees’ wellbeing and design work to minimize stress yield meaningful benefits in all organizational domains all the way to the bottom line. We are able to boost feelings of connection and purpose, improve our team’s performance, create greater staff engagement and retention as well as communicate a level of respect and care for our people. We attract talent with aligned values, and we invite everyone to bring their whole, true selves to the job. This in turn makes innovation, creativity, and collaboration more possible. Who wouldn’t want to work somewhere like this?

4: The ripple effects of getting better at relaxing

Relaxation activities build a relaxation mindset. When I pursue and carve out time/space to practice activities that have a loosening effect on my body, mind, and spirit, it builds my capacity for integrating a more relaxed approach to my parenting, my work, my relationships, even mundane stuff like driving my kids around, paying bills, folding laundry. Practicing this in lots of tiny moments knits the behavior into my way of being no matter what life sends my way, and becomes a particularly powerful muscle I‘m now conditioned to call into action in stressful times. Making relaxation a regular part of your life also becomes a community-building act. My individual relaxation pursuits have connected me to other people and communities who enjoy the same pursuits as me and as a result, my tribe of high-vibe, inspiring, fun, like-minded, vibrant people expands all the time. This has been an unexpected and enriching outcome of taking better care of myself, and one that keeps me motivated to continue practicing this way of living.

5: Actionable relaxation reclamation

So let’s reclaim relaxation every day for the sake of our own well-being and for that of everyone we live and work with. Not sure where to start? These can help:

  • Discover what activities you like to do to relax. Pay attention to what sparks your interest, makes you smile. Time-travel back to what you loved to do as a little kid. Make a vision board if you need some inspiration to get the relaxation juices flowing.
  • Make space for relaxation physically, mentally, and energetically. Weave space for relaxation into your living space, your schedule, your family’s schedule, your annual planning, and your spending habits. Look at three recent bank/credit card statements, identify at least one expenditure that doesn’t fit your vision for a life with more relaxation or self-care, and swap it out for one of the relaxation activities you’ve identified. Schedule relaxation appointments on your daily calendar. One CEO I know has a recurring “meeting” with our spin teacher. I bet no one can keep up with that woman after she gets to work on Tuesdays!
  • Practice!
  • Keep practicing and keep learning about what you like to do to relax.
  • Observe and marvel at how the more you relax, the more space opens up for relaxation. Watch your mindset shift and your life light up for the better.
  • Become a champion for others’ relaxation and self-care. This is one investment that definitely benefits all of us.

The great news is that it doesn’t take huge changes or a lot of money or time to introduce more relaxation and self-care into your life. One small change can spark quite meaningful benefits for your health and your wellbeing. You can’t mess this up. Start anywhere and have fun!

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I write about what inspires me to grow. Writer+commspreneur+mama powered by a gorgeous tribe, the planet’s wonders, running dancing yogaing, and dark coffee.

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Nancy Lord Lewin

Nancy Lord Lewin

I write about what inspires me to grow. Writer+commspreneur+mama powered by a gorgeous tribe, the planet’s wonders, running dancing yogaing, and dark coffee.

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