We generally attach relaxation to particular times, such as weekends or the summer holiday. If you only relax on these occasions then the rest of the time (in other words, most of your life) you must be tense. Unfortunately relaxing is often confused with being laid back, and that usually implies not working efficiently. So we end up ‘thinking in twos’ – I’m either relaxed or I’m tense. The solution is not to find some mid-point between them but to have a third point, which is best described as being alert.
The degree of alertness needed in any situation will depend on how much pressure there is. Pressure is a demand to perform, and when the fourth piece of work arrives on the table, all of it required yesterday, pressure is high. The consequence will be activation of the physiological response called fight or flight – levels of adrenaline and cortisol, for example, will have increased to facilitate rapid action. However, whether we’ve become tense or not is measured by what happens afterwards: are we able to let go, or do we continue with thoughts about what-if and if-only? In the Challenge of Change Resilience programme stress is defined as ruminating about the worst things that never actually occurred. Being physically geared up for action is not stress, but becomes stress if it continues when it isn’t needed. Pressure is turned into stress by rumination, which not only prolongs fight or flight unnecessarily but also makes you miserable. How long into the holiday does it take you to ‘unwind’? Stress winds you up, and results in sustained tension.
The Resilience training programme includes a short exercise in relaxation, but the exercise is qualified by emphasising the importance of relaxing the mind and not just the body. Physical relaxation is useful, but since your body is in essence a lump of meat governed by your mind, the effects are temporary. Suppose you’re an expert relaxer. You arrive at work and sit down behind your desk, totally relaxed. The first piece of work arrives, a reminder that the contract due yesterday hasn’t been delivered; you have two members of the team off sick, and the computer system is on the blink. In no time your shoulders are hunched and your stomach knotted. All of it comes from tension in the mind, which is why relaxing your mind is more important than just relaxing your body. Relaxing the mind happens now, in the present, and the easiest way to do that is to close your eyes and listen. Thoughts continue to arise, but all you need do is take you attention back to just listening, without being caught by the sounds and starting to create stories with them. Gradually the thoughts start to subside, and your mind becomes still.
Participants in the training sometimes comment that this seems like meditation, and it is similar. Stilling the mind is a first step, a precursor to meditation, though deep meditation takes the final step of surrendering everything, including the ‘listener’. The relaxation exercise is more like mindfulness. Contrary to what psychologists would have us believe mindfulness is not a psychological concept invented in the last decade, and on closer examination their idea about mindfulness is compromised by being passed through ‘psychological’ thinking. Mindfulness is simply being present. In everyday life it might include drawing on experience and making plans, but all of it with attention under control and keeping the present as the frame of reference.
Hence the practice of stopping and connecting your attention with listening, though connecting with any of your senses will do, since they all only work in the present – you can’t hear yesterday or tomorrow! The thoughts you have about what happened last week or might happen next week are just thoughts, but we become completely lost in them. This is described in the Resilience programme as waking sleep, and is different from dreaming sleep only in degree. When you’re dreaming, the dream is real until you wake up; when you start thinking about next weekend you end up there too, until you wake up. When negative emotion is added to the thoughts we end up in the nightmare of rumination.
To ensure that tension doesn’t build up and become habitual, it is useful to just stop and let go whenever you remember to do so. It doesn’t matter that when you check again 10 minutes later some tension has returned – whenever you remember, break the cycle by stopping, relaxing and listening. Tension that carries over into weekends or holidays is a consequence of continuing to worry, which is pointless. If worry worked there’d be worry courses. Nothing is actually being done but you’re left feeling wound up, and what’s required is letting go and regaining presence of mind.