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08/13/2015 08:54 am ET Updated Aug 19, 2015

5 Steps That Will Help Even The Most Tightly Wound People Relax

You might think worrying, maintaining tight control, and resisting change will forestall disaster. Actually, says Martha Beck, it'll only drive you nuts.
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Davide Bonazzi

 

No offense, but you were probably born a bit clenched. Most of us were. Anyone who's ever cared for a distressed newborn has witnessed impressive levels of clenching: fists, face, tummy, legs. The one thing babies can do, when confronted with pain or fear, is scrunch up tight -- and let's be honest, we're all just babies with a few miles on the odometer. I sometimes wonder whether we're so haunted by the trauma of birth that unclenching never occurs to us. "There I was," our preverbal minds recall, "floating contentedly, trusting absolutely, fearing nothing -- and then bam! Bright lights, cold air and years of diapers." Decades later, we're still lurching around with coiled fists, braced for the worst.

The irony is that the best way to deal with distress is to relax -- literally, re-lax, or "loosen again." There's a wonderful German word, Losgelassenheit, that describes the motion of a horse when it relaxes and trusts its rider so absolutely that their movement becomes a joyful, fluid dance. We can clench our way through an adequate life, but only Losgelassenheit produces greatness. Living fully requires a return to the looseness that predates our first breath to an untroubled trust that we are supported by a universe that has no interest in hurting us, only in teaching us to dance.

My preferred way of coaching clients (and myself) through this process is to first try relaxing in specific, limited ways and then check to see whether disaster follows. If it does, we can always reclench. But if nothing terrible occurs, we may find the courage to unwind a little more, and then a little more, all the way into Losgelassenheit. Here's my loosening-up to-do list.

1. Relax Your Need to Relax

 

Long ago, at my daughter's peewee gymnastics meet, I heard the mother of another 6-year-old hiss into her child's ear, "Dammit, Danielle! Would you at least try to relax?" I doubt poor Danielle had a moment's relaxation before or since, no matter how hard she tried. The problem with trying to relax, of course, is that it's paradoxical: The moment you start trying, you're not relaxing.

To deal with this conundrum, start by loosening your need to loosen. Right now, notice the level of tension in your body. See if your breathing is contracted, your facial muscles tight, your stomach churning. Next, check your mental state: Are you perfectly calm and peaceful, or plagued by fear or stress? Whatever you discover, take a deep breath and...don't relax. At all. Tell yourself that it's all right to be exactly as tense as you are. Just feel whatever you're feeling.

There, isn't that a relief?

2. Relax Your Attention

 

Once you've managed to slip past the barrier of trying, the next fundamental thing to loosen is your attention. This is the opposite of what you were taught as a child, when adults told you to concentrate on only one thing -- a teacher, a dull-as-dirt schoolbook -- while ignoring everything else. But researchers have discovered that this kind of tight focus can actively prevent relaxation.

So throw out that idea. Instead, look straight ahead and find something to be the center of your visual field -- a flower, a candle flame, a spot on the wall. Then, without moving your eyes from the target, widen the focus of your attention so that it includes not just the target, but also everything in your visual field, from the center to the outside edges. Think of the target as important and everything else as unimportant. Then (and here's where things likely veer from your usual practice) make all of it -- everything you see -- equally important. Top to bottom, left to right, all just as essential.

Did you try it? If so, you may have noticed that as your attention opened, so did your mind and body. Maybe your muscles became softer, more elastic. Maybe you forgot to worry. Maybe you can't even remember what happened because, for a moment, you weren't thinking. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this soft, unconcerned no-thought is the sensation of being alert and perceptive. Try relaxing your focus in a variety of situations: while cooking or cleaning, perhaps. If you start to burn dinner or accidentally drink bleach, just stop. Go back to attention clenching. At least you tried!

3. Relax into Whatever's Happening

 

Nineteenth-century journalist Margaret Fuller once famously proclaimed, "I accept the universe." To which essayist Thomas Carlyle replied, "Gad! She'd better!" Tom had a solid point. Struggling against reality is exhausting, nonstop labor with profoundly disappointing results. I've worked with innumerable clients who were perpetually in full flight from the simple facts of their lives. If you're like them, try relaxing into whatever's already happening. You may as well, right? Whatever exists at this moment is beyond your control, so right now (and a minute from now, and an hour from now, and so on) let it be. For the time it takes you to read the rest of this column, stop trying to change things. Feel how much energy fills that loosened space.

4. Relax the Standards You Can Never Meet

 

One reason many of us resist our current situation is that it fails to match our own expectations. "This isn't right!" we think. "I'm not supposed to be a divorced, anxious, aging office manager with wine stains on her blouse. I'm supposed to be a wealthy paragon of spiritually advanced yet smolderingly desirable perfection!" Good luck with that.

For whatever reason -- media images, standardized testing, our parents, a combination of the above -- almost all our cherished standards of excellence are goals we can't achieve, much less sustain. Striving for the trappings of happiness is taking you further and further from actual happiness.

Observe a roomful of your relatives, a dozen people you pass on the street, the folks currently wandering around the mall food court. How many of them do you think match the standards you wish you could attain? I thought so. Now try relaxing your standards to the point where all those people are good enough—to exist, feel, deserve compassion. Imagine setting your standards so low that every being you meet is good enough. If you did this for yourself, would your life go straight to hell? Maybe. Or maybe—who knows?—your world might start to feel a bit more like heaven.

5. Relax Your Resistance to Uncertainty

 

If I knew you'd already tried the little experiments above, I'd be very pleased. If I knew you were going to try them again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, I'd be astonished. Most people who ask me for advice -- and mind you, they're paying for it --seem to consider it an object for contemplation, never actually a tool to be used.

I think that's because doing anything unfamiliar forces us to confront life's inherent uncertainty. (And that's especially true for relaxing, with its implied relinquishment of control.) When faced with what we don't know, we go the Hamlet route, deciding we would "rather bear those ills we have, / Than fly to others that we know not of." If we just clench up tightly enough, says the birth-rattled infant within us, nothing unexpected or unpleasant will ever happen again.

Of course, this only blinds us to life's opportunities and adventures. If we'd never left the womb, we'd never have experienced the world. As spiritual writer Mark Nepo says, "We are the only creatures that seek out guarantees, and in so doing, we snuff the spark that is discovery." Relaxing our need to be certain, our illusion that we're in control, is the only way to regain that spark.

So try the relaxation ideas I've already described, and then, when you're a bit less tightly clasped than usual, take five minutes to sit in a quiet place. With every exhale, mentally repeat, "Now I am dying." With every inhale, think, Now I am being born. Both statements are true. With every passing instant, the present you disappears into the past and a new you steps into the world. For five minutes, feel this. Die and be born, die and be born, die and be born. Get used to it. When you can relax into death and rebirth, you can handle anything.

Each moment is a chance to be reborn, this time without clenching and tightening. But that isn't a goal, and it isn't a virtue -- if we think of it that way, we'll never relax. Reloosening is simply a way to feel better, right now for its own sake.

Once we stop exerting intense effort, choosing instead to soften our attention, accept whatever's happening, loosen our judgmental standards and allow life to flow along its uncertain path, our experience of life gradually reloosens, going from frightening and painful to interesting. The powers that shape us turn out to be not punishing, condemnatory monsters, but forces that teach us Losgelassenheit, showing us how joyful, graceful and delightful life can be.

Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One.

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