I absolutely suck at relaxing. The moment my body hits the couch, my brain reminds me that I need to wash the dishes, water the plants, vacuum the floor, dust the furniture, make the bed, check the laundry and write 10,000 articles lest my life spiral into darkness while I wiggle between the cushions. My brain has, in short, zero chill.
To help me look beyond my constant concerns, I enlisted certified mindfulness facilitator Heather Prete to teach me a lesson in relaxation. But first, let’s explore why attempting to relax can make us feel guilty. Prete explains that these feelings stem from our so-called thinking mind, which has a tendency to scan and control our environment. More importantly, it also has a tendency to scan and control our thoughts: It speculates about the future and induces anxiety about what might come next; it criticizes the past, promoting depression caused by all the things that could have been done differently; it fantasizes about the things in life that could currently be better, bringing on a general dissatisfaction with reality.
This, sad to say, is human nature.
The nice thing is, simply seeing these anxiety-inducing thoughts for what they are — unhelpful and unrealistic — is the first step to putting them aside and enjoying lazy time on the couch. The goal is to create more space in the mind between these thoughts — which will never end, mind you — and the stress they actually cause.
Prete also explains that we have a habit of minimizing relaxation, since our constantly active society makes us feel like we should always be getting stuff done. But she cautions about should-motivate thinking, like telling yourself you should be washing the dishes instead of relaxing on the couch, since outside of work, nothing besides your mind (and maybe your significant other) is saying you should be doing one thing over another. Plus, since stress and anxiety can literally kill you, relaxing is just as valid a task as any, and understanding that will help you chill out.
Now that we recognize how our minds trick us into feeling guilty, we can get to some actual practices that can help us relax. Know that this will take time, though. “It’s like a muscle we have to build, and this muscle has become quite weak,” Prete explains, harkening back to the idea that our fast-moving society has hammered us with the notion that we need to be constantly on the move.
The practice Prete recommends for relaxation in particular is a kind of meditation known as a body scan, which essentially helps us get in touch with how our bodies react to those nagging feelings that so often come up when we attempt to relax. There are guided body scan meditations all over the internet, but I’ll embed one below, which you can use whenever you feel stressed (although, Prete says doing this practice consistently — say, once a day — will have the best outcome).
Now, Prete says those nagging thoughts are likely to come up during the body scan, and she recommends taking a hard look at them. “Notice what happens in your body when you start thinking about the dishes,” she says, adding that you might see a tension form between your brows, or anxiety bubble up in your stomach. Observing the negative effects can help your brain realize just how unhelpful those thoughts are, which can eventually promote a natural, more pleasant reaction to them. “We’re creating a space between thoughts — like, ‘I have to do my email’ — and reactivity, then we’re adding care.” That care being the fact that you really do deserve some chill time.
In addition to noticing those negative effects, Prete says spotting positive ones is just as important. “We have a natural negativity bias in the brain, which will only notice when we’re not at ease,” she says. “But if we don’t notice with mindfulness that we’re at ease, then that doesn’t become part of our worldview.” Again, the idea here is to train the mind to understand those negative feelings for what they are, while also bathing in the positive ones.
If you find that these body scans are too time-consuming, Prete also mentions an acronym known as STOP, which stands for: Stop; Take a breath; Observe; and Proceed. This is basically a super quick meditation designed to stop the cycle of anxious thoughts in the mind, allowing you to move forward without worry in the present moment.
I know that mediation isn’t for everyone, but I highly recommend giving it a try — I, for one, always feel better after meditating. But for anyone who doesn’t like meditation and still wants to relax without feeling guilty, my best tip is to get some solid stuff done before you relax. That way, you won’t feel bad about taking some time for yourself.
Remember, you deserve it.