Making Relaxation a Part of Recovery
You’re moving through your steps, talking to your counsellor and attending meetings—but how much are you really taking care of you?
Recovery is a journey of rediscovery and determining what keeps you satisfied, comfortable and motivated. Alternately joyful and challenging, recovery is where people confront root causes of addiction, identify triggers for problematic behaviour, and adopt ways to successfully address and manage addiction. It is a lifelong process that requires patience and self-awareness as individuals test ways to live free from substances and harmful habits. At The Cabin Chiang Mai, we’ve observed that a major element of recovery is learning how to handle stress and crisis without relapsing into addictive behaviours. Relaxation is a powerful tool in the recovery process, and a variety of techniques aimed at stress relief are being increasingly used and taught by addiction specialists as they guide people through treatment. From breathing exercises to yoga, to meditation, there are many ways to encourage a sense of balance and calm, and strengthen a sustainable recovery.
Relaxation 101: Setting a Standard for Self-CareRelaxation is an essential part of the larger palette of self-care, which is a critical but often overlooked component of preventing relapse. Self-care hinges on the principle of taking as much as one needs, instead of struggling to cope with less. This includes meeting basic needs, like eating well and getting a healthy amount of sleep, as well as finding time to unwind and have fun. Many on the pathway to recovery have previously struggled with poor self-care practices, which can contribute to destructive habits. Jennifer K., in recovery from an eating disorder, wrote in Heroes of Recovery, “I knew I needed help when someone once asked me what I enjoy doing and I literally could not respond. For so long, I believed I had no choice but to run myself into the ground, that I had to put off attending to my needs.” Those in the process of recovery often must learn how to incorporate self-care into their daily lives to improve their quality of life and help prevent the possibility of relapse. An easy way to assess if you’re currently struggling with self-care is with a simple acronym, HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. The presence of any of these feelings can indicate that it is time to focus on self-care. While some people may feel good with a basic combination of a solid night’s sleep and regular meals, others may need to give themselves the permission to have fun, to be kind to themselves, and to make time for their own needs and interests. Prioritising relaxation includes accepting the importance of self-care and creates a strong foundation for recovery to build upon.
Settling In: Exploring Different Ways to RelaxThe art of relaxation is highly personal; what one person finds soothing, another may find challenging or even boring. It’s important when exploring different relaxation methods to keep an open mind, and to try different activities until you find something that feels right. Here are a few suggested methods that have been widely promoted by recovery specialists, as well as people in recovery.
Mindfulness MeditationThe ancient art of meditation is becoming increasingly prevalent globally. The modern medical community has also begun to recognise the enormous health benefits of meditation, and many addiction specialists seek to incorporate meditation into their treatment programmes. “The challenge to altering addictions is the fear that you can’t change, which can push you into denial and cause you to minimise the consequences of your unproductive behaviours,” explained Dr Ronald Alexander in Psychology Today. “Research on mindfulness meditation indicates that qualities we once thought immutable that form temperament and character can actually be altered significantly. By retraining your mind through mindfulness practice, you create new neural networks.” For those beginning meditation, practitioners generally suggest focusing on the breath, noting each inhalation and exhalation, and observing thoughts passing through the mind without judgment. This allows a person to see over time how particular patterns of thought or feelings develop, and can promote a less judgmental, more balanced approach to life events. Numerous studies have shown that regular meditation can significantly decrease levels of stress.
YogaYoga, a traditional practice originating from India that incorporates meditation, breath control, and the use of specific body postures to direct the body’s energy, is widely promoted as a discipline for better health and relaxation. There is also a growing body of research examining the specific benefits yoga has for those in recovery. “Addiction takes a person out of their body and prevents them from connecting to who they are physically and feeling what their body is telling them,” explained Jennifer Dewey, a fitness manager at Betty Ford Clinic to Yoga Journal. “Yoga is a great way to slowly reintroduce someone to physical sensation. It’s also very relaxing, so in terms of the anxiety, stress, and depression that arise from detox, it’s invaluable in helping people stay calm and grounded.” For those looking to begin a yoga practice, there are often many options available online or at local fitness clubs or community centres. A key principle of yoga is to “follow the breath,” which means allowing a relaxed pattern of breathing to guide the practitioner into different poses. As with any new form of physical activity, yoga offers a range of poses for beginners and advanced practitioners, so it’s good to start slowly to assess what’s best for your current conditioning.
ExerciseExercising creates a variety of physiological changes in the body that aid and deepen relaxation. It stimulates positive brain activity, and has been proven to reduce depression and anxiety. There are many different ways to work your body, and finding the right one can be challenging. Jogging, swimming, aerobics, dancing, weightlifting, hiking, biking, and climbing are just a few possibilities. Some things to consider when you’re thinking about an exercise routine are:
- Do I prefer exercising alone, with a partner or with a team?
- Do I prefer exercising indoors or outdoors?
- Would I like a structured form of exercise, like an aerobics class, or do I prefer to lead my own workouts?
- Do I prefer moderate intensive exercise, like gardening or power walking, or vigorously intensive exercise, like jumping rope or swimming laps?
- What does my doctor recommend in terms of exercise?
Making Space for Daily Moments of Self-CareMost people’s everyday schedules are filled with work, school, and/or family obligations that leave little time for self-care. Constant focus on other commitments can create a sense of depletion and exhaustion where stress tends to thrive. It’s important to identify moments in each day where a relaxation activity, even if it’s brief, can be regularly incorporated. This could include practices such as:
- Burning aromatherapy oils after work
- Including a new body care routine, such as a foot bath, body scrub or face mask
- Playing nature sounds or relaxing music
- Giving yourself (or getting) a mini-massage to relieve tense muscles
- Finding 10 minutes of alone time to meditate, enjoy a cup of coffee, sketch, practise deep breathing or do a few yoga poses
- Connecting with a daily affirmation or positive phrase
Benefits of RelaxationIn addition to its important role in preventing relapse, relaxation has many other benefits that add to a person’s overall quality of life. These benefits include:
- Better sleep – the practice of relaxation prepares both your body and mind for sleep by slowly relaxing the muscles and allowing the mind to quiet down. Combined with other sleep-friendly habits like avoiding caffeine in the afternoon, keeping your bedroom dark and quiet, and shutting off any screens an hour before bed, relaxation can greatly improve the quality of sleep.
- Improved mood – the relief of stress and anxiety caused by relaxation techniques can have a significant positive effect on a person’s mood. This is also due to the release of serotonin and endorphins through relaxation techniques like exercise, which help boost mood and reduce pain.
- Positive health effects – studies have suggested that deep relaxation can decrease blood pressure and heart rate, alleviate pain, relieve problems with digestion, and improve a person’s immune and cardiovascular systems. Active methods of relaxation such as exercise or yoga help to reduce inflammation and maintain a healthy body weight.