Relaxation is not the same as sleep. We are not conscious or in control of our brain and body while we are asleep. The body moves and the brain is active. When we are in a true state of relaxation, the muscles are relaxed and the mind is still.
Relaxation is a skill that can be learnt and used to help you feel less stressed and in control. Many people find relaxation techniques help them to fall asleep. They also help during periods of wakefulness and can help you fall back to sleep again.
Poor sleepers often complain that their mind is too active and they can’t ‘switch off’. The body may also be tense and many people find it hard to stay still. There is always something that needs our attention and if we wait until everything is ‘done’ we would never sleep at all! Observe yourself and your friends and family, you may notice that some bodies are never still. Try sitting or lying completely still for a few minutes and you will discover that finding ‘stillness’ is not so easy!
Sleep and Stress
We all have a certain amount of stress in our lives to function otherwise we would never get anything done! Stress is often seen as a negative feeling. ‘I am so stressed’ is a common complaint and usually means that life is busy with lots to do and too little time to do it. Most of us manage, and find the balance between being busy and fitting in some relaxation and a good nights sleep. Without stress we would never feel excited or scared. It is only when we are overstressed for a long time that the body and mind are adversely affected.
Many of us have lost the ability to relax naturally and need to relearn the skills of relaxation. Relaxation is for many a glass of wine and a night in with a DVD. It would be more accurate to call this ‘distraction’ as the mind and body are still engaged and alcohol and lack of activity will not help improve your sleep.
When the body and mind react to a demand such as escaping from danger or coping with an emergency it goes through a number of changes. Messages from the brain tell the adrenal gland to produce the chemicals adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases blood pressure and heart rate sending more blood to the muscles. Cortisol acts on the body’s supply of glucose and fatty acids enabling the brain and the body to react to danger – the ‘fight or flight response’.
Out of Control
We are all familiar with that feeling of fear or excitement when the heart starts thumping, breathing becomes faster and we are completely alert. After the danger has gone these slow down and everything returns to normal. When life’s demands cause us to keep reacting in this way the body and mind are less able to cope and may stay ‘stressed’. Long term stress causes numerous health problems including; high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, anxiety and depression.
Relaxation for Health
Relaxation can reverse the symptoms of stress. It teaches you to be aware of the body’s stress response and how to slow down breathing and relax the muscles. An awareness of how the body reacts to everyday stressors will not solve the problem but may help you cope.
Relaxation techniques are often taught with activities such as Yoga and Tai Chi. Using breathing is an important part of how we direct our energy. The way we breathe changes with the body’s demands, becoming faster when we need to move and becoming slower when we relax. By developing the skills to change our breathing we are able to change the way the body and mind reacts and feels.
When we sleep we hope that we will wake up feeling fresh and energised. Sadly, this is not always the case, especially if we have had a restless night or we suffer from insomnia or other sleep disturbances. Relaxation produces a feeling of rejuvenation, relieving tension from the muscles and creating a sense of calmness and peace of mind.