How Do You Make Relaxation a Regular Part of Recovery?
We often think of relaxation as a luxury, something we do every once in a while if we can manage to get a few days off of work or get someone to watch the kids. However, daily relaxation is a necessity. It’s a vital part of good self-care, especially for anyone recovering from a substance use disorder and their families as well. Most people recovering from addiction say that stress is their biggest cause of cravings, and in fact, many addictions begin as a way of coping with stress and other challenging emotions. Chronic stress can also worsen health risks, such as heart disease, obesity, insomnia, digestive problems, and more frequent illnesses. These are all risks that are also increased by heavy drug and alcohol use.
In short, taking time each day to relax isn’t just a luxury, but a way of protecting your physical and mental health, and a vital element of your recovery plan. However, it’s not always easy to relax, especially early in recovery when you may be feeling unusually tense, anxious, and irritable. The following tips can help you make relaxation part of your everyday life.
Set Aside Time
If you want to make relaxation a habit, you need to actually dedicate some time in your day to it. If you just figure you’ll squeeze it in when you have some free time, you’ll usually end up skipping it. Figure out a time that will work most days. Just before bed works pretty well for most people and relaxing can be a great way to improve your sleep as well. Right after work might be another good time and having a little buffer between your work and home life might improve your relationships. Find a time that works for you and try to stick to it every day.
As for relaxation itself, this is often harder than you would expect. You might sit down in your comfy chair with some nice music and still feel tense and agitated. One strategy that will probably help is progressive relaxation. Start at the top of your head, notice any tension there, and let it go. If it won’t seem to go away, try tensing the muscles for five seconds or so and then relax. When that area feels warm and relaxed, move on to the next area, perhaps your face or the back of your neck--both places that hold a lot of tension. It may also help to use visualization. For example, you may imagine the tense areas as a block of ice melting.
The body and mind are connected in complex ways and it’s very hard to relax your body if your mind is tense, agitated, or racing. Relaxing your body should help to calm down your mind, but it can work the other way as well. Meditation can be an excellent way to relax your mind. There are many different methods of meditation and many of these are great for helping you mentally relax. Mindfulness meditation is currently the most popular form of meditation and it specifically emphasizes not getting wrapped up in thoughts. The Relaxation Response is a simple meditation method that combines progressive relaxation and mantra meditation. Research published in Public Library of Science ONE found that this technique--and likely others as well--actually cause genetic changes in the way your body responds to stress, including genes related to inflammation and oxidation, two kinds of stress that can lead to heart disease and cancer, respectively.
Meditation can relax your mind and help you respond better to stress but it does take a little practice. In the meantime, deep breathing is a quick way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and get your body and mind to relax. Deep breathing, and in particular, a long exhale, has been shown in many studies to activate the vagus nerve, which stimulates your rest-and-digest system. The ideal rate for relaxation appears to be about six breaths per minute. A regular rhythm like a three-second inhale, six-second exhale, and a brief pause before repeating should help you relax both mentally and physically. Furthermore, taking a few slow deep breaths is something you can do pretty much any time throughout your day when you need a short break.
Many studies show that exercise is good for your mental and physical health, and good for addiction recovery. One reason is that regular exercise makes your brain less reactive to stress, which makes it easier to relax. If stress relief is your main goal, it’s best to keep your exercise fairly moderate because intense exercise, whether it’s long endurance-training sessions, or spending hours in the weight room can increase cortisol and require more sleep to recover. To relax, you would do better to engage in more moderate forms of exercise like walking or tai chi. Yoga can be a bit more intense but it also incorporates relaxation, stretching, deep breathing, and meditation, which can make it ideal for relaxing. The only caveat is that exercising within two hours of bedtime can make it harder to sleep.
Hot Bath or Shower
For relaxing your muscles and getting a little space from other people, it’s hard to beat a hot shower or bath. Music can make it more relaxing, and many scents, such as lavender are relaxing as well. Guys typically prefer showers but it’s hard to beat the relaxing power of a hot bath. As with exercise though, a hot bath too close to bedtime can raise your core temperature and impair the quality of your sleep. Therefore, if you’re taking a shower or bath near bedtime, go for warm, not hot.
Be Careful About Media Consumption
Finally, if you’re trying to relax, beware of unnecessary exposure to things that will make you tense. Exciting, suspenseful, or violent movies and TV shows get your adrenaline going and make it harder to relax. News and social media are terrible if you’re trying to wind down because much of that content is specifically calculated to make you angry. If you’re trying to unwind by looking at Facebook, you’re not doing yourself any favors. If you’re going to watch something to unwind, go for something funny or positive. Laughter is great for relaxing.
Relaxation plays an important role in addiction recovery. It helps keep you mentally and physically healthy. It’s crucial to make relaxation a regular part of your day. In fact, the more moments of relaxation you can work into your day the better. If you look at the best pro athletes, for example, they are typically the ones who look the most relaxed the instant they step off the field, off the court, or out of the ring. They know it’s time to let go of whatever mistakes they made and rest before they have to get back in the game. Stress is cumulative, so the more of those kinds of microbreaks you can incorporate into your day, the less burdened you will feel.
At Foundry, we know that recovery from addiction is really about living a better life. It’s about being more skillful in the way you cope with stress, manage your emotions, and relate to other people. That’s why life skills, emotional regulation skills, self-care, meditation, yoga, and other practices are integral to our holistic addiction treatment program. For more information, call us today at (844) 955-1066.
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