Why deep-rooted relaxation is top of my to-do list – and it should be for you, too

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Watching cat videos lowers stress and spreads positivity, according to a 2015 study – proving that this time-honoured ritual is well worth its weight in distraction. Purveyors of the art will not be surprised: cats, after all, are masters of relaxation. 

Our feline friends sleep for an average of 16 hours a day, and spend the rest of the time eating, bathing or stretching out somewhere warm. Any stress – a scrap with a neighbouring Tom, for example – is quickly forgotten, as cats get back to what they do best: chilling. 

Us humans, on the other hand, are not so adept at taking it easy. Instead, we’re hard-coded to feel tired and wired, in a stress habit that’s surprisingly hard to break. Last year, I found myself bombarded by a quiet storm of work and family issues. At the time, I was no more overloaded than the average person my age – in fact, in some ways, I had it easier. 

The freedom of a freelance career, coupled with no kids and a life in the laid-back countryside, meant that (on paper, at least) my cup was not overflowing. Yet still, I charged through every week gasping for a break and time to think. I focused on getting things done and out the way – not stopping for a moment to enjoy them. 

Finally I realised that if I ever wanted to feel relaxed again, I needed more than a fistful of mindfulness apps on my side. Instead, I had to commit to relaxation: to move it from a withering ember into a reigning priority – with all the oxygen that requires. Here’s how:

Stop trying to “hack” relaxation

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The $1.5 trillion wellness market is booming right now, as we rush to get our fill of everything from ballet core and vegan veg boxes to the elusive art of sleep hygiene. But we rarely stop to question *why* it is that we need this tapestry of support options or how come people were more relaxed in the 1990s than now, despite the influx of choice. 

My commitment to a radical level of relaxation means I have stopped buying into the myth that a huge weight of tasks can somehow be “fixed” by a 10-minute restorative yoga session (or by watching a cat video, for that matter). I now try to resist slapping a band-aid on the problem. When the going gets tough, I take a step back to see what else is going wrong

If I feel so stressed by lunch that I end up Googling “at desk breathing exercises”, for example, that’s my cue to acknowledge that my mornings are overcrowded and untenable. If I struggle to drift off at night, it suggests that something is off-kilter in my day. These issues can’t be quick-fixed. They deserve a deeper look at the cause.

Remove the great expectations

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 Of course, stress in life is subjective. It depends on outside pressures, yes, but also how much pressure we pile on ourselves. So my commitment to radical relaxation means examining the narratives I tell myself when things get stressful, and peeling them away one by one. 

For example, if I continually have too much to do, the answer is not to churn myself into a manic froth of exhaustion trying to do it all. As time management writer Oliver Burkeman points out in his book, Four Thousand Weeks: “Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.”

Burkeman uses the example of “inbox zero”. When we try to blitz through our emails, we only get more in return. Our workload suddenly doubles, as responses and new questions flood in. Burkeman argues that – newsflash – that magical moment when we have everything done will never arrive. Admitting defeat can therefore be hugely liberating.

Nowadays, I make a big effort to be real with myself and acknowledge that around 30% of the things I want to do will never get done. And that’s OK. But it does mean that I have to get more real with my priorities. 

Make a daily commitment

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Above all, radical relaxation is about making a lifetime commitment to the art of loosening up. This happens in several ways. First, I avoid the tendency to diminish my stress. If my body is telling me I’m wired, I’m wired: regardless of whether outside events tell me I “deserve” to feel that way or not. 

I’ve also explored how “work” and “relaxation” can coexist alongside one another in my life. In other words, I shouldn’t have to wait for the weekend, or even a rare holiday, to wind down. Rather, if I create the right conditions, I should feel relaxed no matter what: even in the middle of deadlines, or faced with a barrage of tasks. 

Of course, this is easier said than done, and everyone will find their own way through the matrix. For me, it’s about creating several non-negotiable boundaries. I always go for a lunchtime walk, I finish work on time every day, and if I can, I sleep in for an extra hour or two in the morning rather than do anything else. I’ve also recently arranged my work around a four-day week; and the extra day can be spent on anything I feel like; or indeed, on the art of “doing nothing”

Reassess your priorities

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I’m lucky enough that I’m in a position to make these compromises, but they were not easy to put in place. I’m careful, however, never to tell myself that they are indulgent. 

My realisation over radical relaxation kicked in during a period when my Dad was seriously ill last year. It was a time in my life where suddenly my priorities were crystal-clear. In the battle between my Dad and work deadlines, my Dad naturally won every time. Work, of course, had to continue but I was amazed to see how seemingly immovable commitments will flex when you need them to. 

The experience made me realise that you have to decide what matters in life; otherwise life decides for you. In an age of perennial busy-ness, I put relaxation on the backburner. I reduced and diminished it, delaying it for another (forever out-of-reach) day. And this happened despite it affecting my wellbeing in loads of small yet significant ways. Record burnout levels tell me that I’m not alone in this struggle, either. 

Nowadays, I put relaxation front and centre. I try protect my right to relax just as others might train for a marathon, or write their debut novel. I have to tackle it this way because the odds are stacked against me – and they will be for you, too. It’s time to reset the balance. 

Images: Flash Pack and Sabri Tuzcu on Unsplash

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