When you’re an infant, one of the most important tasks you learn from your parents is how to self soothe. In other words you learn to relax when you’re anxious, settle down when you’re crying, and unwind when you’re feeling tense. An infant learns this through the relationship he or she has with the primary caregiver. When the caregiver approaches a child in a calm way, gently picks the child up, and rocks a child to rest, that infant is learning to self-soothe in the midst of feeling anxious.
This might seem like a natural skill to learn because we see children doing this all the time. However, when a parent approaches children with their own anxiety or anger or frustration, then this might keep a child from being able to relax. Or when the home environment is unsettling for whatever reason, then a child may never learn to settle down. Over time, if a child doesn’t learn to relax either because of anxious parents or because of the environment (or even due to trauma that an infant experienced in utero), then that infant may never grow up with the knowledge of how to soothe themselves. They may turn to outside sources (such as drugs and alcohol) to find a means to cope with intense feelings.
Learning to relax is much more important than the general public realizes. Most adults live a very active and busy life. They find time to relax on the weekends, but even that might be filled with family events and responsibilities. Furthermore, stress is a significant source of health problems today. Some stress-related illnesses are related to the fact that a person simply doesn’t know how to relax – or never learned how when they were a child.
Learning to relax and calm yourself down when you’re anxious, angry, frustrated, tense, or stressed is an incredibly important skill. As already mentioned, it can keep stress-related illnesses at bay. It can also keep a person from relying upon drugs and alcohol as a way to relax or avoid unwanted experiences. In fact, this is a very common reason why people get hooked on substances. They start drinking or using drugs and realize that it took their problems away. They felt good about themselves and their life. Suddenly, life felt manageable. However, continuing to turn to substances (thereby avoiding whatever problems and feelings there are) only leads to unhealthy circumstances. First, an addiction might set in, and secondly, the use of substances can make some life problems worse. By continuing to avoid feelings, they might only grow. For instance, a person who starts drinking after losing a loved one might never go through the process of grieving and only fall into a depression.
The good news is that even if you’ve never learned to relax, you can start any time. Activities like deep breathing, yoga, meditation, going for walks, spending time in nature, taking a break from technology, and more are all ways to relax the nervous system. When a person practices one or more of these activities each day, they will slowly make relaxation a way of life. They will have a greater ability to face stress when it comes.
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