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How Do You Want To Feel, Instead Of Stressed? Part 2: Varieties of Relaxation

In an earlier article in this series exploring the ideas behind my Stress Resilience Blueprint, I wrote about the varieties of feeling good (part 1 of this article). Let me summarise what I said there. 

  • We all want to feel good and avoid feeling bad – that's just inherent in being alive. When we find ourselves feeling bad (e.g. when we feel stressed), we either try to get rid of the bad feeling, or we reach out for a way to feel good, as a way of displacing the bad feeling.
  • I posited two categories of good feelings, first what I termed anticipatory enthusiasm, and second, peace and contentment. These each have distinct physiological underpinnings, the former tending to involve increasing arousal and energy, the latter broadly speaking decreasing arousal and energy.

What's the value of making this distinction? I think it comes when you start thinking about what is the most appropriate response to your current situation – how do you need to feel instead? Often people have a default response to feeling bad, e.g. an addict might reach for their particular “drug”, whatever it is. (And very often addiction relates to anticipatory excitement – think of gambling addiction or shopping addiction especially.) Or people have a rigid idea of how they'd like to feel instead (e.g. calm and peaceful) not realising that each feeling has it's time and it's place.

One of themes that runs through my work, and this series of articles, is the idea that you need specific resources and skills to meet particular challenges. It's important to train and develop the skill-set of resilience, but it's also important to know what the most appropriate response is right now. For example, if you're giving a presentation, and nervous about it, relaxation may not actually be the most appropriate thing, (an idea I develop in this article on relaxation) but confidence could be.

On the other hand we do need to calm down and relax some time, and in this article I want to extend the theme of differentiating states of mind to relaxation. My point is that there's a range of relaxation states, and it's important to be clear on which state you want.

I want to draw attention to two broad kinds of relaxation, which I'll call focused and unfocused. They each have value in their own way, and are underpinned by different physiological states (especially within the brain). First let me say what I mean by these.

Focused relaxation, or relaxed focus, is an extremely useful state in a wide range of different contexts. Take sport, for example a golfer who needs to make a putt to win the competition, a tennis player who's break point down, a footballer about to take a penalty. They need to be clear and alert and fully focused on what they're doing, yet relaxed – if they're not relaxed they're going to “choke” and fluff their chance. Being distracted or absent-minded, through apathy, is also likely to lead to poor performance too.

Relaxed focus is about being at the peak of the “Human Performance Curve” which I've written about in another article.

human performance curve

Most people need to be in a state of relaxed focus most of their time at work. For example, think of someone you know who's really good at presentations. Probably they'll come across as relaxed, as they speak, and yet aware of their purpose in giving the presentation and also what's going on around them, how the audience is responding. You can probably think of people who are a bit too relaxed while speaking to an audience – they're smooth-talking and affable but easily go off point or off track.

Leisure time too involves relaxed focus – think of following the plot of a novel or a TV programme.

Unfocused relaxation is basically daydreaming. It's downtime for the brain, and the mind wanders aimlessly. The body is unaroused but the mind is fuzzy, maybe even dull or sleepy. (It's that warm feeling you might get after a glass or two of wine.) But there's definitely value in daydreaming, as Daniel Goleman makes clear in his book “Focus: The Hidden Driver Of Excellence”. Daydreaming is important for creativity and original thinking, but also because the “muscle” of executive function and focus needs rests between bursts of peak performance. Sports players e.g. golfers probably need intense focus only in bursts.

I suspect most people think of unfocused daydreaming as the definitive form of relaxation – maybe even to the point of falling asleep. Yet we spend much more time in relaxed focus (or at least, we'd want to). I would say for most of the contexts we meet in life, relaxed focus is the more useful and appropriate and productive. Being skilled in accessing relaxed focus is very valuable.

Physiology

What are the differences between focused and unfocused relaxation in terms of physiology?

What follows here is personal speculation rather than hard science.

I suppose that the body is in a relatively unaroused state in both focused and unfocused relaxation. But there are differences. I've noticed that when I'm practising mindfulness meditation there are changes as I drift out of focus and into daydreaming. When I'm present and aware and mindful, my breathing tends to be naturally steady and slow (in fact usually at about 5.5 breaths per minute). When my mind wanders, although my muscles stay just as soft and loose, my breathing tends to become faster and more irregular. (Note I'm differentiating between relaxed, sleepy daydreaming and agitated distraction, where my mind turns to worries – the latter is not relaxation).

So in my focused state of meditating, I tend to be in heart coherence, but not in unfocused daydreaming.

Probably the clearest differences between focused and unfocused relaxation lie within the brain. Daydreaming is associated with activation of a brain system called the default mode network. The brain turns away from external or sensory information (in the here-and-now) and towards internally-generated activity, which is usually about either past or future rather than the present.

Training Relaxation Skills / Accessing Relaxation

My Stress Resilient Mind programme trains especially relaxed focus, using biofeedback and mindfulness as the main tools. A central theme is optimal breathing training.

What about unfocused relaxation? It's not the sort of thing you can deliberately train, because by definition it's non-volitional. But it's good to practice day-dreaming or just "down-time" at least every now and again. It'll happen easily enough if you sit down for a period of time with nothing to do - provided you don't get in your own way by becoming restless and thinking about things you could or should be doing, or just turning to habitual worries. Worrying is not the same as day-dreaming. Please note, doing nothing does not mean reading or watching TV or browsing on facebook, etc. It takes practice!

If you find it difficult to do nothing, because your mind too-easily becomes restless for something to do, or starts worrying, then again the Stress Resilient Mind programme can help.

References

Here is an article on the science of day-dreaming.

Below is a short video about the default mode network.

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