The holidays are supposed to fill our homes with love and joy. But, often, we are snapping at our kids more than usual. Battling traffic, standing in lines, increasing our spending, entertaining guests, fitting in the pageants, the programs and the parties. It wears on our patience. We can feel as if the peace of the season is a far-fetched illusion. The keys to staying calm, however, are actually within our grasp at every moment. We need to discover and remember to use them when we feel tension approaching. Relaxation therapy is a body of exercises that helps us connect to the peace that is already deep within us. (Yes, it’s there—it’s just covered up by layers of stressful thoughts and behaviors.) For many of you familiar with yoga, this will sound familiar, but since most of us don’t have time to go on three-day yoga retreat to reclaim our peace, relaxation therapy techniques are designed to be simple and practical, and realistically incorporated into daily life. Do you breathe? Do you think? Then you are already using the two most powerful tools for staying calm. Relax regularly Using relaxation techniques on a regular basis will help keep your baseline stress level lower. Using them during a crisis will help keep your reactions rational and healthy. (Parents don’t usually strike out in anger at their child when they are feeling calm and centered.) Practicing relaxation in front of, or with, your children will instill these important coping skills in them, as well, and help them manage stress for the rest of their lives. To help make relaxation practice a routine in your home, explain to your children that these are activities to help prevent stress, just as brushing your teeth helps prevent cavities. You don’t wait until you have a cavity to start brushing your teeth; why wait until you are overwhelmed to work on relaxation? If you think you don’t have five minutes a day for relaxation practice, count up the minutes you spend redoing tasks, trying to concentrate, worrying or venting frustration. Regular relaxation practice can eliminate these wastes of energy, and you’ll end up actually having more time than you used to. Research has shown that practicing certain relaxation techniques, such as meditation, helps to raise the level of serotonin—the chemical that keeps us calm—in our brains. Not only that, but when we’re calm, it helps raise the serotonin levels of the people around us as well. Which means, of course, that calming yourself calms your children. Some of the simplest examples of relaxation techniques follow. These are only a sampling; many more exercises are available. These techniques can be used at times of high stress to help you calm down and handle situations rationally. If practiced on a regular basis, they will increase and strengthen your sense of peace and stability at all times. The first four techniques can be practiced anywhere and at any time—whether you’re standing in a long line at Toys ’R’ Us with a screaming toddler or stuck in traffic with a mood-swinging teen who’s late for the holiday band concert. Breathwork Focusing on the breath is a natural path to your center of peace. We’ve long recognized its helpfulness during the process of childbirth. Using it after the children are born is even more important. Try this exercise: If possible, sit quietly and comfortably and close your eyes. If that’s not possible, simply pay attention to your breathing. There is no need to change your breathing, just pay attention to it. Notice where your breath enters your body, where it moves to and where it moves out. Notice if your chest moves as your lungs expand and contract. Notice if your shoulders rise or fall. Simply follow your breath wherever it goes. As you continue to focus on your breath, it will naturally begin to deepen and your heart rate will slow. The longer you attend to it, the more relaxed your body will feel. Your mind will wander to other thoughts many times, but when this happens, simply notice it and then gently bring it back to your breath. Even one minute of focused breathing can help you to reclaim your sense of peace, and calm yourself down. Perceptual change Our thoughts literally create our existence. Perceive stress and you will feel stress; perceive peace and you will feel peace. Take a good look—or listen—to what you tell yourself about any situation. Are your thoughts contributing to greater stress or greater peace? You make this choice in every waking moment of your life. Any time you begin to feel tension, you can stop and ask, “How can I change what I’m thinking to feel peace instead?” For example, when you are rushing through the mall, irritated because you can’t find the right body lotion for Cousin Lily and your first-grader has to go to the bathroom again, take a second to listen to your thoughts. Are you telling yourself, “I have to find Rosewater because it’s all Lily wears, and I have to find it today because there’s no more shopping time left, and if this child has to pee once more we’ll never get out of here!”? If you continue to perceive the negative, you will escalate the stress. But, if you stop and change your thoughts to: “What if I get Lily a gift certificate to the mall and she can find the Rosewater herself? It’s not my daughter’s fault she’s got a tiny bladder. I won’t take this out on her. I’ll calm down instead; we will get out of here; five minutes more or less doesn’t matter.”—you will lose the stress and return to peace. Centering The practice of centering connects you to your physical center of gravity and helps you regain balance and stability. To find your center, or the geographic middle of your physical body, use this exercise: Stand straight, with both feel flat on the floor. Close your eyes. Without moving it or touching it, be aware of your right hand. Without moving it or touching it, be aware of your chin. Without moving it or touching it, be aware of your navel. Now, be aware of a spot an inch or two below and behind your navel, in the center of your abdomen. You may sense that this is your center of gravity. Focus your attention on this point. Imagine yourself drawing in all of your scattered energy and concentrating it here. Continue to focus your energy here, and you will begin to feel stable and balanced. Practicing centering on a regular basis will increase your sense of emotional, physical and spiritual balance. Using centering when you are facing a stressful situation will help you to remain calm. The next time you are standing in the kitchen with one child in the high chair, a second on your hip, macaroni and cheese on the stove, FedEx at the door and the dryer buzzing, take just 10 seconds to remember your center. Locate it, pull in all of your scattered energy and remember the core of peace that is within you. Mindfulness Being mindful means paying attention to the present moment. Most of the time our minds are reaching forward to the future or backward into the past. This creates tension by introducing worry or regret and also by putting too much into our attention zone at once. Focusing on only the present moment brings peace. When you are basting a turkey, just think about basting the turkey. Watch your hands and the juices, smell the aroma. You can’t worry about whether Aunt Jean and Uncle Stan will get into an argument at the dinner table if you are just paying attention to the basting. You can’t feel guilty about last Thanksgiving, when your sweet potatoe casserole burned, if you are just focused on the present moment. Practicing mindfulness will enrich your life experiences because you will be fully present in everything that you do. Visualization Your body responds to what your brain pictures. Visualize yourself lying in the sun with a tropical drink on a white sand beach in Ixtapa—even if you are changing diapers as it is sleeting in Chicago—and your body will respond to the image in your mind. Think of a scene that makes you feel peaceful. It might be that beach in Mexico, the mountains in Vermont or your summer garden in the back yard. As long as the scene symbolizes peace to you, your body will begin to release the tension in your muscles, your blood pressure will drop and your heart rate will slow down. Your breathing will become deeper and you will find your physical and mental peace. Hanging a drawing or photograph of your peaceful vision in your kitchen or at your desk can be a reminder to go back to that visualization when the stress starts to take over. Meditation Meditation is often misconstrued as a religious practice. While it can be a spiritual experience, it can also be simply an exercise to calm the mind. The basis of meditation is to focus your attention on something peaceful, and when your mind wanders, to bring it back to that center of peace again and again. As you take your thoughts away from your daily life and focus on peace, your body will respond by relaxing. As you continue to practice this exercise of leaving distraction and coming back to peace, your mind will get better at letting go of stress and staying centered and calm. This skill will help you in situations all through the day. To practice meditation, sit quietly and comfortably. Set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes and put your mind on something that makes you feel peaceful. This could be a word (“calm,” “sky,” “love,” “God”) or a mental picture (a sunset, shimmering lake, floating clouds, a sleeping child). You may focus on your breath during your meditation, or you may simply try to clear your mind of any thoughts and focus on the “blackness” behind your eyes. As other thoughts come into your mind, simply notice them, and then bring your mind back to your focal point. The benefits of meditation are immediate as well as cumulative. Over time, with regular practice, build your mediation to 20 minutes. You will find yourself more focused in your work, better able to control your emotions, sleeping more deeply and more able to let go of small irritations. Practicing relaxation techniques can reduce the conflict and increase the harmony in your family, as well as strengthen your immune system, improve your work performance, raise your confidence and increase the joy in your life. Think of it as your holiday gift to yourself, and to all.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 21 and 25. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.