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Everything goes better when you RELAX

Some years ago, I became ill, and the doctor told me that if I didn’t rest, my symptoms would get worse, and possibly develop into a chronic condition, so… 

Panic – how do I relax?

I was at a loss. I went to lie down, but my head was busy; I was worrying, tense. How could I relax – really relax and rest? I was a workaholic and the worry was increasing. The illness not only debilitated my body, my brain became very foggy, and I couldn’t work – more panic.  Walking upstairs was an effort, my body felt like lead. And on top it all the pressure to relax was hanging over my head!

A few months previously I had spent New Year’s Eve with a friend who was nursing a broken heart and didn’t want to do her usual boozy reveling.  She came to stay, and we reflected on our lives. We concluded that “everything goes better when you relax”. Years later, I’m working as a coach and teaching classes on wellbeing and confidence, and in all my experience and, I come back to our insight of “everything goes better when you relax”. 

In our society, in our culture, we are generally not very good at resting and relaxing. In fact, many people can’t do it, can’t fathom how to do it. I was one of those people.

Must Relax Harder

This was the ridiculous thought that kept recurring during those transitional months, lying in bed and ‘trying’ my hardest to relax. I can laugh now, but it was serious!

Relaxation – what and how?

Relaxing is about becoming calm and comfortable, letting go of tension and anxiety, our muscles become less tight, and we can happy, and at ease.

Let’s begin with the body

Resting is a natural state, and it involves body and mind. However, our culture has been stuck in the strongly held belief, going back quite a few hundred years, and espoused by philosophers, academics, and scientist, that our mind, intellect and thoughts are the most important things. But no – it turns out that this is not the case. We are matter, energy, mystery, and in my experience it is best to start with the basic building blocks in the body. 


Most of us have heard of the fight, flight or freeze responses. These are the body’s normal and sensible responses to threat or danger, perceived or real.  Fawn has been added to this in recent years as a response where people become submissive.

These responses are hardwired in our ‘reptilian brain’ as it is often called, located at the top of the brain stem. This is the oldest part of our brain; it is hardwired for survival.  The other more sophisticated parts of the brain (the cortex and neo cortex) don’t get a look-in when we feel threatened, when we’re afraid. Many of us feel threatened and afraid daily, when it is clear that the situation is not life-threatening (unlike the situation many people across the planet find themselves in). Work deadlines, financial worries, the climate emergency, racism, extremism, striving to achieve, social media, family responsibilities and relationships … the list goes on. Irrational, imagined or real – if we think we are in danger the reptilian brain fires up and we become stressed.  Does it always have to be this way?

Chemical reactions

A little stress is good, it keeps us on our toes, alert and prepared; but if we are continually stressed so that our bodies don’t get a chance to recover, we can become ill.

If we need to fight or run away, then resources are drawn away from non-immediately necessary systems and functions (e.g. reproductive, digestive and immune system) and deployed in the musculoskeletal system. This makes sense, yes? Some of the most prevalent illnesses associated with stress are IBS and immune system illnesses, but the whole body is affected.

You have two main autonomic nervous systems – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. While your sympathetic nervous system carries signals that put your body’s systems on alert, your parasympathetic carries signals that relax those systems. The two systems work together to keep your body in balance.  Too much stress and the parasympathetic system becomes weak and languishes – we lose the ability to recover.


There are many studies on why some people are more resilient that others in the face of stress. What emerges is that the ability to rest and relax after periods of stress or exertion is the key. Athletes will agree, I am sure. If we continue to be stressed and don’t engage the parasympathetic nervous system, the body says enough!  

Techniques to help us Relax

There are many ways to relax, and we should find what suits us best. I initially, tried Qi Gong and Tai Chi and they proved invaluable in my recovery. They introduced me to my body.  

Recently, there is a great deal of talk about the vagus nerve and polyvagal theory. The vagus nerve plays a significant role in regulating the nervous system, and paying attention to it would be wise.

The Vagus Nerve

Vagus nerve stimulation slows the heart and breathing rate, relaxes the muscles, and more. Vagus nerve exercises jumpstart a cascade of events that tell the body that it’s safe to enter a state of rejuvenation and recovery.  Here are some easy tips:

Singing and humming

These increase our vagal tone because the vagus nerve innervates our larynx (voicebox). In the shower, in the bath, with a choir, anytime anywhere, it will make you feel good and help you relax.

Cold Water

Cold-water immersion on the face or neck stimulates the vagus nerves via a reflex of the skin’s nerves. A cold shower or swimming in cold water stimulates many parts of the body and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. Do it regularly – you will feel good.

Breathing – Breath Work

I cannot emphasise the importance of conscious breathing enough.  Choose a technique or a few techniques that work for you.

Triangular breath – In for 3 seconds. Hold for 3. Breathe out for 3.

The box breath – In for 4. Hold for 4. Out for 4. Hold for 4.

A relaxing breath that I use for sleep is – In for 4 seconds, hold for 7, and breathe out for 11 seconds (if possible). Repeat these exercises at least 5 times to feel the benefit.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Everyone can learn to meditate – no matter how busy your head is.  One breath at a time, one minute at a time, building up to 5 minutes, then 10 and before you know it you will be meditating. Yes your mind wanders, but keep at it. There are many techniques for meditating and for becoming more mindful. This is another piece of writing.  

Qi Gong and Tai Chi

Easy movements that almost anyone of any age and ability can do.  

My favourite Qi Gong YouTubers are Jeffrey Chand and Qigong Meditation


Yoga is good for you. You can go to a class, watch a YouTube teacher, and start slowly.  There are many good people to follow online.

Getting outdoors

Nature heals, and there is a great deal of research to show that simply bearing outdoors in nature is good for our bodies and our emotional and mental states.

Just move

Walk, run, go to the gym … whatever works for you. But keep moving and keep active. This helps us regulate and relax.


This is brilliant, in that it engages all of us. There is evidence that social dancing is the human activity most likely to promote joy, but even dancing in the kitchen on your own will be of benefit.


Other ways to help you Relax


Watch a funny film, or a comedy programme. 


Relaxing music is a tonic and a great companion for relaxing.

Relaxing videos and podcasts

A plethora of available resources to help you unwind and relax. Stories and soundscapes, meditations, and visualisations – all of these can be helpful. They helped me when I couldn’t get out of bed.


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