The first time I remember someone telling me to “RELAX!” was when I was 16. I broke my wrist playing quarterback in a sandlot football game. I completed the pass for the touchdown, but when I got up from being tackled, I noticed my wrist was unusually bent.
We met the orthopedic surgeon at his office, where he told me that he could set my wrist there rather than at the hospital if I cooperated. He shot my wrist full of Novocain and told me in no uncertain terms to “RELAX MY WRIST.” I didn’t know how to do that without much sensation in my hand and feeling anxious about the whole episode.
After a few failed efforts, the surgeon further chastised me as he would now have to give up his afternoon to take me to the hospital and into the surgical suite. I finally started to relax as I knew he would stop screaming at me
Ever since that time, I always chuckle and maybe have a little PTSD when someone, like a physical therapist, tells me to “just relax.” The truth is that most of us (obviously me included back then) don’t know how to relax.
Relaxing has two components, both of which, ideally, work in concert. The first is easing physical tension in the body, and the second is quieting the mind.
The body aspect can be achieved through many techniques we think of when we want to relax, such as breath work, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, dance, massage, and guided imagery. These approaches focus on relaxing muscles and releasing physical tension.
Mental relaxation is more challenging because our mind always works and doesn’t want to give up control. We all experience moments of mental quiet during walks in the woods or laying back on the grass and watching the clouds dance across the sky. We can also be intentional about finding a peaceful place in our minds.
I’ve meditated for much of my life, especially in the past five years. I find it challenging to focus on what is happening now. Whether it is tracking my breath or paying attention to the sounds of the birds in my yard, my mind is constantly jumping to what I have to do next or what I didn’t do yesterday. Fortunately, a good mindfulness practice rewards losing that focused train of thought, realizing it, and returning our concentration to what is happening.
The other day, I had my annual physical, and the nurse told me to “just relax” as she took my blood pressure. It was elevated. After she left, I sat on the examining table, took some deep breaths, and smiled. My doc returned a few minutes later, retook my BP, and said, “Good job.”
© Richard Citrin 2023