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The Modern Mind is Distracted, Stressed, and Overwhelmed: Here's How to Relax

burnout energy mindfulness Feb 24, 2020

Originally published in Inc. Magazine.

We live in a world that seems to have forgotten how to relax.

At work, we rush from one meeting to the next. We use the microscopic gaps in our day to fire off emails and texts. And we frantically try to complete all the items on our to-do list by the end of the day, and mostly fail.

At home, we finally have the space to take a breath and relax. And yet most of the things we do to take the edge off the day keep us stimulated and caught in this "always on" state: social media surfing, binge-watching Netflix shows, and catching up on texts and emails.

The result is that our brain and nervous system live in a perpetual state of vigilance, anxiety, and stimulation. And we never give ourselves the opportunity to truly relax.


Neuroscientists have a name for this high frequency, "always on," brainwave state. It's called the Beta state. And this Beta state has a powerful, self-sustaining, momentum to it. It's a lot like a fly wheel: once it gets going, it's almost impossible to stop.

There are, however, alternative states that give us a pathway to real relaxation. Scientists call the first of these the Alpha state. It's that state where your mind starts to slow down, where you feel calm yet alert. And then there is the even slower brainwave state of Theta, a state where you're right on that edge between being awake and asleep.

The yoga tradition has a powerful tool for entering these states of extreme relaxation. It's a practice called yoga nidra. And it turns out this isn't some out there, mystical, technique. An emerging body of scientific evidence shows that this tool has the power to decrease anxiety and stress, while simultaneously promoting elevated mood and a mindset of creativity.

The practice of meditation has similar benefits.  For many people, however, meditation doesn't always lead to relaxation. The goal of meditation, after all, is to build the neural muscle of concentration or to see the very nature of the mind.  These are worthy goals, but, unlike meditation, yoga nidra is specifically designed to lead us into this state of deep relaxation. 

So how do you enter this state of ultra-deep relaxation in the midst of life's craziness? There are, of course, numerous apps that can guide you. But here's how you can do it yourself whenever you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. Just 5 to 10 minutes of this practice can radically shift the trajectory of your day.

1. Lie down.

You know the best part of a yoga class -- that final 5 to 10 minutes where you get to lie down on your back and just relax -- that's the practice of yoga nidra. There's only one difference:  in this practice, we skip the 45 minutes of strenuous yoga poses and go straight to the meditative dessert.

And that's the first step: lie on your back, arms at your sides, with the palms of your hands open toward the sky. You can do this at home, on the floor of your office, or on the grass in a park. And here's one other tip: set a timer for 5, 10, 20, or 30 minutes, just in case you fall asleep. 

2. Lengthen your exhale.

One of the great insights of the yoga tradition and the science of breathing is the idea that we can induce the relaxation response by lengthening our exhales. To do this, you can use a simple breath ratio: inhale four counts, exhale eight counts. Remember to stay relaxed. Never force the breath. And, if you want to try out an advanced version of the practice, insert a pause for four seconds at the end of each exhale.

3. Let everything go.

If you're like most people, you have about a thousand different nudges, emails, texts, and to-dos swirling in your mind during every waking moment. This practice gives you a rare opportunity to let all of that go, even if only for a few minutes. So after spending a few minutes inducing the relaxation response with the 4:8 breath, let go. Drop any effort to shape or control the breath. See if you can enjoy this rare opportunity to do absolutely nothing and relax.

Now, I know what you're thinking, "I don't have time to relax. I've got reports to write, talks to give, and important meetings to go to." But here's the thing, the research is clear: by allowing yourself to relax deeply, you dissolve that cloud of stress that's hanging over your day and you open up new stores of focus, creativity, and innovation.

So the question isn't: do you have time to relax deeply? The real question is: if you want to be less stressed and more productive, how could you not have time to train this essential skill of relaxation?

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