7 tips to help you unwind quickly and feel human again
He walked stiltedly into my room, his movements as flexible as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. With tension glued into every part of his face and body, he related his sorry tale of headaches, misery, lack of enjoyment, and over-work. He looked near to tears and described feeling overwhelmed by life. Michael needed a remedy to the poison that was killing him; the 'poison' was tension and the remedy was easing back and 'unwinding'.
"I used to wake up with a smile, really! Life didn't feel so serious. But for the last six months, I've been insanely busy and I just feel so tense, angry, and miserable all the time."
Tension is held in the body. You can see it: flexed jaw line, rigid shoulders, clenched hands. You can also hear it in the voice: Michael, who worked as a local member of parliament, sounded tense when he spoke; he had little range or power in his voice and I noticed his breathing was shallow and fast.
"I realize I can't go on like this. My partner tells me I've become grumpy, I'm exhausted all the time, and there is no way I can work fewer hours until my summer break. My work is suffering and so is my relationship."
"And so are you!" I reminded him.
What Michael needed wasn't complicated, but he'd reached the point that he couldn't see it for himself. He needed to hear it from me and fast.
Relieve tension and heed the warning
Tension may be okay in the short-term, but long-term it's a warning. Here are some ways for you to relieve tension to make sure you can become more productive, healthy, and satisfied with your life.
1) Ditch the self-medication
Constant tension had caused Michael to drink too much coffee (up to ten strong cups a day!) and to try to unwind by drinking at least a bottle of wine every evening. The drinking was making him tired and he was using coffee to try to combat that exhaustion, which at best it could only mask. Coffee and alcohol were having the same effect on his tension as paraffin would have on a fire you were trying to douse.
So the first step is to cut down on any substances you suspect are just substitutes for real solutions to your tension.
2) Why so tense?
Is it work, a relationship, lack of exercise, guilt, anger, exhaustion, or a combination of stuff? We need to 'know the beast' before we can vanquish it. Michael had been over-working but becoming "worse at [his] job". Tension was also making him feel unhappy much of the time and, when he came to see me, he was sick of feeling that way.
Sit down and think: "What is making me tense?" Write down anything that comes to mind (it may even be a particular person). Then think about practical ways that will (along with these tips) help you to either improve the situation or at least get some respite from it.
3) Take time out
Often feeling tense is a sign that you need to take regular pit stops. We can all keep going a lot longer if we take time out. Even during his busiest times in the midst of WWII, Winston Churchill would still insist on taking to his bed for an hour in the afternoons. There is nothing like a 20-minute afternoon power nap to ease away tension, revive energy and optimism, and make you feel human again.
A NASA study found that an afternoon power nap of 26 minutes can boost performance by as much as 34 percent! (1) As I told Michael, the best time to power nap is between 1:00 and 3:00, a time in which we naturally experience a dip. I taught him how to relax deeply and, like Bill Clinton and Albert Einstein, he's found it helps him be more productive. For a flavour of daytime relaxation, listen to the free audio session below.
No, not house (that might increase tension!) - move your body. A short walk three times a week has been shown to have greater antidepressant effects than antidepressant medication. (2) And being outside in nature (even a park in a major city) can also relieve tension very fast. (3)
Michael decided there and then to start walking the 2 miles to and from work and to resume doing short yoga exercises on days when he worked from home.
Exercise also helps you sleep better at night and will improve the quality of your life-enhancing afternoon power nap, too. : )
5) Very touching - get intimate
Whether it's by getting a massage once a week or taking time to hug a loved one (and yes, loving sex can be a great stress reliever!), touch can melt away tension. Gentle touch has been shown to improve physical and psychological functioning, particularly in terms of reducing tension and stress, relieving pain, and increasing your ability to cope. (4)
I suggested (and he accepted) that Michael book up for regular massage. My hypnotic session would help undo some of the knotted tension in his stressed body, but I felt a really good series of massages would get him feeling much looser and more limber again.
6) Actually, it is a laughing matter
A good belly laugh can suppress pain, boost immune response, lower blood pressure, and enhance a sense of intimacy and shared understanding with those around you. (5) Make a point of revisiting funny movies, spending time with people who make you laugh, and also recalling times when you really laughed.
"When did you have a really good laugh?" I asked the oh-so-serious Michael. Tearfully, he told me he couldn't remember; but I had a sneaking suspicion that part of him could. Later, during hypnosis, I asked his unconscious mind to travel back to a time when he'd been really laughing.
It didn't take long. Like a rusty, seldom used hose pipe spurting once more into long neglected action, he started to titter, then splutter, then finally roar with laughter. I suggested that he would laugh more during each day and really feel the benefits, a sense of perspective being one of them.
7) Meet and greet
Other people can help us. Making time to see people who are fun, interesting, and good listeners as well as talkers will help you relax more. Socializing might even make you smarter! Oscar Ybarra and his colleagues at the University of Michigan found that social interaction improves mental functioning. (6) They found that people who engaged in social interaction displayed higher levels of cognitive performance than the control group and felt less tense and happier for hours afterward.
Michael conceded that he had been neglecting his social life and we looked at ways he could start to build it up again.
I know Michael isn't a full-time politician anymore, because I saw him the other week on TV. He was interviewed in his new role as organic food company director and when I saw his face, I could see that tension lines had vanished and, dare I say, he looked happy.
Get daily anxiety-busters in your inbox
Mark's daily email tips on how to overcome fear, anxiety and stress will help you reduce your worries and calm your fears. Click here to subscribe and feel calmer day by day.