Unwinding–A Master Class, Part 1
“Relax!” verb, directive – a phrase you say that will almost guarantee the person being addressed will never, ever be able to relax.
We throw the words “relax and unwind” around too easily. We tell people to do it as though it was as easy as breathing (well, it kinda is, but more on that in part 2). This casual tossing around of these words has damaged the concept in our minds. We’re too quick to think we “don’t have time” to relax (lie), or more commonly that what we are doing is relaxing when it’s absolutely not.
Relaxation isn’t the same thing as “fun”. Relaxing things can be fun, but not all fun things are relaxing. We live in a busy, distracted world, and the best most of us feel we can do to “unwind” is to get some TV in before bed, maybe go out for dinner from time to time and take our annual vacation.
How is that working out for you?
Can we do better?
In this two-part post, we’ll explore what relaxation isn’t, what it is, and ask ourselves some tough questions about how to do it best.
Your body: temple or amusement park?
Be careful about using food as entertainment, especially if it’s cheap, fried, sugary, or some combination of these things. These kinds of foods hack the pleasure centers of the brain, overwhelming your sense of being satisfied with a need for the explosive dopamine hit to continue. This is why “you can’t eat just one”. It’s a food hijacking your brain and using the mechanisms designed to help you to survive to help you gorge.
Foods high in sugars kick up insulin production in your body, which in turn puts stress on your circulatory system and your heart. Over time, this can aggravate the negative effects of daily stress on the body. A diet high in saturated fats and trans fats can have a similar effect. Excess, with food or alcohol can also do a lot of damage, even when it’s done in the name of fun or relaxation.
There’s nothing wrong with a little indulgence now and then, but just know that you’re trading some mental and psychological pleasure for some bodily stress that can accumulate to a deadly result over a long period of time. We’re not saying “no dessert!” (God forbid!) Just use moderation and understand the trade-off you’re making. If bodily stress is a major concern, don’t neglect this aspect of how you treat your body.
Real unwinding is not just about your physical well being–the tension in your muscles, etc. It has just as much to do with your mind.
It’s easy to confuse the mind with the self, and so we forget that the mind is a tool. It helps us make decisions, interprets our experiences, and produces our feelings. Since it’s a tool, we need to keep it working well. This means you need to regularly rest it and sharpen it. But too often we abuse it by overindulging it with sensational experiences, cheap thrills, and shallow, fleeting pleasures.
We can hardly get away from them. An outside observer might guess that we’re slaves to these flat, glowing surfaces. They’ve filled our living rooms, bedrooms, classrooms, workplaces, and even our pockets, purses, and cars. A lot has been said to question the wisdom of this cultural shift, but let’s focus for a moment on how it affects your stress and relaxation.
The light from screens can actually cause stress. Sleep studies have shown that the stimulation caused by the bright LCD and LED-style screens that fill our lives inhibit the production of melatonin, a hormone that signals to your body that it’s night and that it’s time to sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping you might consider keeping the screens off for an hour or two before going to bed and see if that helps at all.
And what about social media? Studies have shown conclusively that the most social media you use, the less happy and healthy you are. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram, while fun and useful at times, can also breed envy and depression as we compare and contrast everyone’s best days with our worst and get drawn into unproductive political debating and ruminating. Even the “news” we find there turns out to be less than reliable.
Long gone are the days of a guilty pile of mags stashed in the woods or the furtive trips to the adult video store. The device you’re reading this on right now is a private, anonymous conduit to see more naked bodies than a Victorian libertine could’ve seen in a lifetime.
Cultural enthusiasm for this stuff has given way to a justified backlash as critics point out exploitative norms in the industry, and psychologists critically interrogate porn’s value in enhancing our sex lives. Porn use can cost you your job and cause public humiliation, not to mention the damage it can do to your libido, your relationships, and your ability to enjoy healthy sexuality.
Porn is like a mental junk food, hijacking your senses and your brain to keep you riding high on oxytocin and dopamine while it reroutes your sex drive to fleeting, superficial experiences. In most cases, these experiences, while they can be intensely pleasurable in the moment, only serve to isolate you rather than build a lasting bond with another person.
Let’s be honest: if it were healthy, we wouldn’t call watching hours of television on end “bingeing”. Letting yourself get swept up in a drama can be cathartic. There’s nothing wrong with some escapism now and then. But is there any drama that’s worth the loss of sleep and every negative consequence that flows from that?
Entertainment, but for zombies
Going out for drinks, watching TV, video games, movies–we all have a set list of the things we do because it’s the weekend, or it’s time to relax, or it just seems like the thing to do. But does that mean it’s relaxing? Does that mean it’s worth your time?
Examine your recreational choices and question them–really put them under the hot lights and interrogate them–for what they’re actually giving you. Are you really getting out of them what you think? Is it time to break the mold and try something new?
In part 2, we’ll talk about healthy ways to unwind that are truly relaxing and life-enhancing long term.
Choose the good life.
Tom Gunn is the blog editor and Marketing Director for The Good Life Massage. You can send you comments to him directly or ask him how he can help you build your brand through content marketing by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org