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Posted Oct 22 2008 4:24pm

“The art of remaining flexible enough to adjust to a changing environment, while continuing to access positive resources”
P. Vitale 1996

Would you be interested in gaining some mastery over your life by learning how to control your nervous system – and just relax? After all, when you are relaxed life just seems much easier, and our creativity and energy flows more easily doesn’t it?

What exactly is relaxation? When I talk about relaxation it is certainly different than curling up with a good book or watching television. Although we call activities relaxation, the mind is still in an active state when performing them -- if an EEG (brain wave measurement) was performed on a person reading a book or watching television or other "relaxing activity", the electrical activity would demonstrate what is known as beta rhythm – an active state of concentration. In what I like to call "deep relaxation" that rhythm shifts from a beta rhythm to an alpha rhythm. In order to shift that rhythm in the brain you must turn off the adrenalin pumping nervous system and turn on the relaxation response. You can do this by learning meditation, self-hypnosis, progressive relaxation, or some other technique where a trance-like, inwardly focussed state is produced. One of the common elements here is that thoughts are slowed down, and are less intrusive, and the mind and body rest. The alpha rhythm predominates. This is a state that can be easily learned.

People often ask me what the difference is between meditation, hypnosis, and deep relaxation. They are all similar in the sense that they access and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system or relaxation response. Meditation differs from the others in that its intent is usually some kind of transcendental or spiritual experience. In hypnosis too, there is often an intention that is different from "just relaxation", although both self-hypnosis and meditation can be used to deeply relax. In hypnosis there may be a particular purpose other than simply relaxing, such as increased confidence, increased self-esteem, freedom from fears, phobias, pain and so on. However, the actual relaxation states that are accessed in all of these ways are very similar, as measured by brain wave activity.

When you decide to start a relaxation program of some kind, whether it is meditation, self-hypnosis or some other kind of program, it is important to prepare yourself by finding a comfortable place, a chair, a bed, and make sure as much as possible that you are not going to be disturbed during this time. If you can unplug the phone do so. If you need to let people in your family know that you are "doing relaxation" and don’t want to be disturbed, then do that too. Prepare your conscious mind by telling yourself that you can put away any thoughts of worry, future concerns or past memories for the time being, and if necessary return to them later.

Stress is partly caused by paying attention to thoughts, moving from one thought to another, or focusing on thoughts way too much. Typically we call this worry. When you are learning deep relaxation imagine that thoughts can just float on by, and that you can detach from any meaning that they might have. All relaxation approaches will ask you to focus your attention passively, that is just by noticing, on your breath for example, or certain images, or to focus on certain phrases that you say to yourself. It is important that as soon as you notice that you have strayed from that particular focus of attention, that you simply come back to it, without criticizing yourself for having wondered away from it. This is why it is called meditation practice, or relaxation practice. If we were perfect at it, we would not need to practice! Think of your focus of attention as being like an automatic pilot -- an automatic pilot works by detecting that an object is off course and then bringing it back on course. If you are focusing your attention on your breath, for example, and you notice that you are thinking a thought, -- just bring yourself back to your breathing. If you are using a phrase, image, or mantra in the case of some meditation practises, just bring your mind gently back to that focus. Most people find, and are often surprised at, how easy this is once you let go of the idea that somehow you have to make it happen. Unlike what we have usually been taught, the less you try the more likely it is to happen. When you are finished allow yourself to rise up slowly, sometimes people feel a little disoriented and maybe a little light-headed after they rouse themselves up from a deep relaxation. Just allow yourself a few minutes before you go about your business, and thank yourself for taking this time to relax.

There are many benefits to regular relaxation practice. Whatever program you decide to use, you will begin to notice changes within a few weeks of your commencement of regular practice. By doing this you are instructing your unconscious mind to turn on the relaxation response. Now, the unconscious mind is very smart – after all when you think about it, the unconscious mind controls many complex tasks for you during the day such as driving, cooking, walking, and multi-tasking, as well as controlling those tasks totally outside your awareness such as heart rate and blood pressure. But the unconscious mind is a habit mind. It will keep doing the same things over and over again until you instruct it otherwise. Relaxation teaches the unconscious to respond differently to stressful situations, and even after you have finished meditating it retains that response.

But don’t take my word for it. Access the many tapes, CDs, classes and information on relaxation and try them out. It was through my interest in autogenic training and hypnosis that I developed the CD “Learn to Unwind and Enjoy Your Life” that can be found on the Ste. Anne’s website at ….. Naturally, I particularly recommend that CD as a simple way to learn to unwind and enjoy your life!

© Edward Leyton MD 2007
©Accessing Resources for Empowerment™ 2007

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