Have you ever watched a military company executing a parade drill? All of the soldiers advance in lockstep with rigid bodies and precise movements. Or have you seen a company of soldiers standing ramrod straight in full salute? It can be quite impressive. There comes a point, however, when this position begins to look a bit uncomfortable. The longer it goes on, the more you think, How long do they have to stay that way? It can be a relief to hear the leader of the company say, “At ease,” releasing the soldiers from such a tense posture. Anxious people spend a great deal of their lives at attention with their fears and concerns in full control. When fears and concerns have control, they rarely allow you to live any part of your life “at ease.”
To learn to relax, you need to first give yourself permission to do so. This tends to be difficult for anxious people, who often don’t believe they can. In response to the question, “Why don’t you relax?” they say, “I can’t.” They will then proceed to give a long list of impassioned reasons why it is impossible for them to relax. They believe they are not in charge of whether or not they can relax. Instead, they feel compelled by circumstances to be constantly at attention, watching for the anticipated disaster, discomfort, irritation, source of anger, frustration, worry, or fear. They believe they can never stand down from this attitude of alert. This is what happens when fear is given charge of your life. One of the biggest breakthroughs in working with anxiety is recognizing that “I can’t” is really “I won’t.”
Fear and anxieties say you’re able to relax only when you’re safe, with safety defined not by circumstances but by feelings. Safety means feeling safe, not being safe. Since fears and anxieties never allow you to feel safe, there’s never a time when you feel you can relax.
This isn’t true, however. Relaxation is something that can be experienced regardless of circumstances. Think about natural childbirth. One of the largest components to this is intentional, directed relaxation. Instead of fighting the contraction, the woman is counseled to respond to the pain by intentionally relaxing her body. This allows her to move through the contraction in a relaxed state, reducing her reaction to the pain. Relaxation is also used in pain management, especially in situations of chronic pain. Learning to relax, even in the face of pain, allows your body to be in a better position to manage the stress of the pain.
Fears and anxieties are painful. When the body is stressed — either through a reaction to pain or a reaction to fear — breathing is rapid and shallow, the heart races, stress hormones release, and the muscles tighten. Intentional relaxation counters each of these. Relaxation returns the body to a normal pattern of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure drop, endorphins are released instead of stress hormones, and muscles relax. Intentional relaxation allows you to take control of your own body and its systems, instead of having those systems hijacked by stress and fear. Relaxation allows you to experience inner calm.
To learn to relax, you need to take back charge of your own life. That’s the only way you’ll be able to create a place in your life for relaxation. You need to be in charge in order to assign relaxation its proper value and priority in your life. You need to start saying no to fear and yes to relaxation. You need to stop listening to all the reasons why you can’t and start expressing all the reasons why you can and should. Saying yes to inner calm isn’t something that can be accomplished in a single, declarative statement. You must continually remind yourself to enter this state of calm and sometimes fight to stay there. With each visit, you work toward staying longer and calmer each time.
The more stressed and anxious you are, the weirder learning to relax is going to feel. But it’s only weird because you are unfamiliar with it. It’s like any new skill. At first it seems awkward and unnatural. Give yourself permission to be uncomfortable with it, but do it anyway. The more you practice relaxation, the more accustomed you’ll become to it and the easier being at ease will be.
If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, The Center • A Place of HOPE can help. Call 1-888-771-5166 / 425-771-5166 today and a specialist will answer any questions you might have.