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The truth about relaxation for stress-management

Relaxation's all the rage!

The market for stress management is huge, and its heavily based around one key concept, ‘relaxation’.

Whether its spa days, herbal baths, Classic FM, or stress balls, the variety of tools to help us relax is huge. But why is relaxation seen as the antidote to stress?

Well, I guess it makes complete sense when we think in the context of arousal and the fight or flight response. Stress triggers our ‘sympathetic’ nervous system, and relaxation triggers our ‘parasympathetic’ nervous system. Beautiful in its simplicity, stress takes you up (unhealthy) and relaxation brings you back down (healthy)

A question for you…

I want you to pick something you’ve recently decided was stressful. Hold it in your mind, swirl it around a bit. Now consider this question…”what difference does relaxation make to that problem/situation?”

Now, I can’t read your mind, but I’m going to guess and say zilch. And here lies the problem with the relaxation-based approach to managing stress. It sounds alluring, and is plastered throughout our media, all based on the idea that every time you feel stressed your sympathetic nervous system is activated, and for the sake of your health you need to relax it away.

But are life problems resolved through relaxation, or are they better resolved through taking action to improve or change the situation? Will meditation or a relaxation cd help with debt problems, relationship problems, a bullying manager?

A simple experiment you can do

The next time you think you might be ‘stressed’, and not angry or anxious, as these are very different states (although they often get lumped together in a very unscientific manner) check your pupils in the mirror, or your pulse rate, or heart rate, or any of the other things that occur during the fight or flight response.

A gigantic waste of time

If when you think you’re ‘stressed’ your FFF isn’t actually going off, then this renders relaxation, or triggering a ‘relaxation response’ a bit of a waste of time. Because other than making us feel nice and fuzzy, what is the point in the relaxation?

Before you bite my head off

Now, I’m not saying there’s no value in chilling out, as we all need to unwind a bit at times, and a nice bath and some classic FM feels great, but it’s not doing anything to address the root problem. In effect, by relaxing we’re simply bandaging ourselves up and getting back on the playing field, rather than addressing the injury.

Relaxation feels great, and it can seem alluring to believe that we’re managing our stress levels by doing it, but it can have an insidious effect too. A workforce convinced that the way to manage their stress is through relaxation, can easily become a workforce that avoids facing up to and confronting their life problems.

Masquerading as tradition

In popular culture, relaxation has kidnapped ancient practices such as Mindfulness and meditation and claims them as tools in its own cause. But if you look deep into these two ancient practices you won’t find relaxation as their aims. Feeling relaxed can be a by-product of mindfulness and meditation, but it is never their aims.

Put your wallet away

So, when it comes to interventions to manage stress in your organisation, whilst relaxation can seem alluring, ask yourself what it is we’re trying to achieve through relaxation. If it’s to help ‘de-stress’ your employees, encouraging them to identify the core problem and work on that will yield far greater results, and save you plenty of money in the long run.

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