Relax! Part II – How to Relax

I was recently placed in a unique situation.  I was camping with friends, out of state in the middle of nowhere, and was asked to take a look at someone who was having a panic attack.  As an EMT, I have dealt with panic attacks before, so I started talking to the person in a soothing way, working to calm him down and find out a little bit of background to how this started.  As it turned out, he had taken a pill that he described as “similar to speed”, and he said he felt like his heart was pounding way too fast.  I checked his pulse and it was definitely racing, although not dangerously fast.  So I began to work with him to help him relax, and in doing so I was able to employ some of the relaxation methods that I have been practicing on my own.

I began with Deep Breathing, which is an excellent way to achieve several relaxation goals.  The act of breathing is unique in that it is one function of the body that is both voluntary and involuntary.  We breathe without thinking about it, but when we focus on it we can control the rate and depth of our breathing very easily.  And since the rate and depth of your breathing have enormous impact on other bodily processes, such as your heart rate, controlling your breathing is an important key technique in learning to relax.  Additionally, breathing holds another key to relaxation in that, as we focus our attention on controlling our breathing, we can simultaneously divert our attention from other distractions.  This is an important fundamental in relaxation since part of the learned skill of relaxation techniques is learning to clear your mind.  This allows you to focus more intently on one train of thought, as in meditation, or to rid your mind of stress by acknowledging and then shutting out distracting and stressful thoughts.

The next relaxation technique that I led this young man through was Progressive Muscle Relaxation.  This relaxation technique, as the name suggests, is performed by progressively relaxing each set of muscles in the body, often starting with one’s feet, and then slowly working your way up to the top of the head.  Muscles can be relaxed in two different ways, either by tensing and then relaxing the muscles or simply by focusing one’s attention on each muscle set and allowing those muscles to relax. Like deep breathing, this relaxation exercise serves a dual purpose as well. As you focus on relaxing your muscles, you again clear your mind of distracting thoughts and begin to enter a more focused and meditative state of mind.

A third relaxation technique which can be quite powerful when employed properly is Visualization where relaxing imagery or even a story line can be described or imagined to help with the process of relaxation. During this particular experience where I was helping this young man to relax over an extended period of time, he asked me to describe some imagery because he felt it would help distract him from the physiological symptoms that he was experiencing.   This method actually worked very well for him.  Visualization has other uses as well, for instance many professional athletes use visualization to improve certain techniques for their sport.

In discussing the situation with this young man, I am of course focusing on guided relaxation in which someone is aided in achieving a more relaxed state by another person or a recording etc.  There is also what is called Autogenic Relaxation, which is self-guided relaxation, employing generally the same techniques of deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization.

So how do you start practicing relaxation?
Here are some resources, descriptions, and explanations to get you started.
As I’ve stated before, everyone will have different approaches to relaxation that work best for them.  I suggest familiarizing yourself with several techniques in order to discover what works best for you.
When I began practicing relaxation techniques, I started with guided relaxation audio files and a set of headphones, and I still use these frequently.

My relaxation “tool kit” usually includes: decent headphones, a sleep mask, and my iPhone or music player.

There are a number of very good relaxation apps available for iDevices, Android devices, etc.  While the apps are nice because they often allow you to customize several aspects of the relaxation experience, comparable mp3 downloads and CDs are available from most of the same sources.

I will list my favorites below:

  • Relax with Andrew Johnson – Guided Relaxation – This is an excellent guided relaxation audio recording, which includes progressive muscle relaxation and visualization.  The respective iPhone app was what got me hooked on relaxation techniques.
  • Pranayama (Mobile Apps) (Album) – Deep Breathing – These programs and audio tracks provide cadences for deep breathing exercises, from basic patterns (inhale:exhale) to more advanced patterns (inhale:hold:exhale:hold).  The concept is simple, but the breathing patterns take practice, and the rewards are incredible.  While it is possible to practice deep breathing without such cadences, the timing is what makes you develop and improve your breathing techniques.  It would be very difficult to get the same benefits and development without these or similar programs.  (*Note that they can very well be replaced by a yoga or exercise partner.  The important thing is that you are training yourself to breathe to a cadence, not just to meet your body’s bodies demands, this is how you will improve the rate, depth, and control of your breaths.)
  • NatureSpace – Nature Sounds – I use these during autogenic relaxation, meditation, and even for naps.  There are MANY sources for nature sounds online, on CDs, mobile apps, etc.  NatureSpace is currently my favorite simply due to the incredible audio quality of their high definition recordings!  Some of their tracks are looped and some are not.  More information is available on their website.  I also suggest checking out their tracks on iTunes where you can hear samples.

Some closing notes:

I highly recommend getting familiar with at least one good guided relaxation program before moving on to methods of autogenic relaxation. You will find that this guided relaxation method will help you develop some of the techniques that we discussed above so that you will know what you’re doing when you begin to try autogenic relaxation.

Some things to try:

  • Start by listening to a guided relaxation audio recording once a day for at least a week.  This will familiarize you with the process of relaxation and get your body used to relaxing.  You will find that the process becomes more effective for you the more you practice.
  • Next, try some deep breathing exercises using a cadence track like the ones I mentioned above.  Find a cadence or a progression of slowing cadences that feel comfortable for you, and start practicing.
  • Finally, when you feel comfortable with your guided relaxation program and your deep breathing, try some autogenic relaxation by putting on something like a NatureSpace track or finding somewhere that is quiet and using the techniques that you’ve practiced.  *Note that it may help to precede this with 5-10 minutes of deep breathing.

Enjoy the power of relaxation!  Comment to let me know how it’s going.  If you have questions, ask!


Relax! Part I – The Benefits of Relaxation

Life is busy!  Often there is so much going on that it feels like you just can’t take a break. It seems like the moment you do, you’ll forget something important, something will fall through the cracks.  Of course, all the pressure of keeping track of everything going on in your life is stressing you out like nobody’s business, but no time to think about that now!

What if there was a way to be more productive and get a few minutes to relax each day?  Actually, there is a very good way …and what does it take? Well…relaxing. Now when I say the word “relax”, I’m not just talking about vegging out on the sofa with a cup of coffee and an episode of How I Met Your Mother. I’m talking about real, focused relaxation using relaxation techniques. The way relaxation is meant to be done. And later I’ll give you some pointers on how to achieve this, but first let’s talk about some of the benefits.

Here are some Benefits of Relaxation Techniques, as listed on the Mayo Clinic website (

  • Slowing your heart rate
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Slowing your breathing rate
  • Increasing blood flow to major muscles
  • Reducing muscle tension and chronic pain
  • Improving concentration
  • Reducing anger and frustration
  • Boosting confidence to handle problems

Expanding upon these benefits in my own words:

Relaxation is good for your health – relaxing allows your body to slow the normal metabolic processes that are maintained while you’re up and active, so it can focus on the little things, you know, like digestion and healing. Additionally, we learn more and more about the ill effects of stress on the body; by taking a little time every day to relax, we can reduce our overall stress and reduce its long-term effects on us.

Relaxation helps you prioritize – it may seem like common sense that halfway between the gym and the post office while trying to remember your grocery list is not the best time to prioritize your day, but it’s amazing how rarely we take time out to prioritize before jumping into our daily activities. I will often take 15-20 minutes to relax and find that by the end I have a list of priorities which I can then write down and get started on. One of the tricks here is if there’s something nagging at you and preventing you from fully relaxing, often that needs to be your first priority. Acknowledge that, and tell yourself that is the first thing you will do, add it to a todo list if necessary to quiet its nagging. In this way I’ve found that really excellent todo lists with sorted priorities can arise almost by magic from just a few minutes of relaxation.

Relaxing is good rest! Sounds obvious, but I’m talking about real rest. I work 12 hour night shifts in a local hospital, and my work keeps me busy for the whole 12 hours. There have been many days where I wasn’t able to get much sleep if any before going into work, but by taking some time to relax before I go in I am able to feel awake and focused for the whole night, just as if I had slept. I’ve tried power naps in the past and they never really worked for me, but focused relaxation seems to fit the bill perfectly!

Learning to relax improves your focus – especially when there’s a lot going on in your life, it takes concentration and will-power to make yourself relax. After some practice, you will find that this starts to improve your focus and resolve in other settings as well. Not a bad perk!

Relaxation can be used as a coping mechanism, such as to help stem panic or aggression – you have heard people say “take some deep breaths” to help calm anxiety, or “take a deep breath before you say anything” (or “count to 3”) to quell anger and aggrsssion. These are coping mechanisms to help people who have difficulties in these areas, and they can be equally effective in day-to-day situations. It sounds cliche´, but learning to relax helps us to find our ‘inner calm’, our ‘zen’, or rather, it is an acquired skill that helps us access a calmer frame of mind on demand.

Lastly, relaxation can help you think or meditate – sound a little too new-agey for you? Just consider this. When was the last time a difficulty arose in your life? Maybe in your relationship with a loved one? A family member? A difficult situation at work? Did you feel like it was easy to wrap your head around it and weigh your options for how to approach the situation? Or how about this. When was the last time you needed to make a big decision in your life? Did you feel like you made the decision too hastily? Did you base too much of your decision on what other people were telling you? Taking some time out to relax and reflect on your thoughts can sometimes crystallize things in a way that no amount of talking can. Sometimes writing can have this effect too, such as writing a journal entry or just some notes to help you visually organize your thoughts. I am in no way downplaying the importance of talking to friends and family, especially about big decisions. What I am saying is, if it’s YOUR decision to make or YOUR problem to deal with then it’s worth taking some time out to listen to YOURself, and find out what YOU really think about it!

So the next time you feel stressed out, have so many things to do that you can hardly keep track, and you don’t have a moment of down time …Relax; really relax; try some deep breathing just for 3 minutes… 5 minutes…  15? whatever you can manage, and you just might find yourself less stressed out, more focused on your priorities, and more ready to face the next task!

My next post, Relax! Part II, will include a how-to with some of the techniques and tools that I have found useful in learning effective relaxation techniques.

Help Yourself

Sometimes helping yourself is the most unselfish thing you can do, because we have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of anyone else.

This simple idea is one of the most powerful and liberating concepts that I’ve encountered.  It is also a lesson I’ve had to relearn more times throughout my life than almost any other.  It seems simple enough, but is easily forgotten when faced with real life problems.

I recently met a warm and friendly woman who cared passionately about giving a future to children with special needs.  So deeply did she care that she had dedicated much of her life to providing a home for needy children as foster parent.  However, she was pouring so much of herself into this passion that she was ignoring her failing health and financial problems. She had bit off more than she could chew, and was starting to choke.

Now I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t follow such positive passions. But if we don’t care for ourselves first, then it is not sustainable and the help that we can give is limited by our health and our assets.

I said that this idea is “liberating”, and by this I mean that if we feel guilt at not doing all that we can, it is useful to remember that we must take care of ourselves first in order to be able to contribute to society.  Nevertheless, it is important to remember that a balance should be maintained, because it is also easy for many of us to become self-absorbed and forget to do our part for those in need.

In my own life, working 12-hour night shifts in a hospital, I am often forced to remind myself that if I do not get ample sleep during the day before I work, not only will I suffer by feeling tired at work, but I am also potentially hurting my patients by not being as efficient, alert, and mindful of safety as I should be. And there are many things in life that beg for attention, so it can be quite tough to “turn off the noise” and get some rest. But this practice can be very liberating too, because it’s easy to sometimes feel overwhelmed unless we can remind ourselves that certain things are the most important and the others will just have to wait.

Think for a minute:
Are there times when you’ve had to make a tough decision to not do something that you wished you could because you knew you had to take care of yourself first? (Share if you’re willing, or just think about it.)

How about times when you wish you’d made more effort, despite some amount of self-sacrifice?

Are there times when we should sacrifice our own well-being to help those in need?
When would that be appropriate?

Thanks for reading. Please share your thoughts!


Hello, and welcome!

This blog is about ideas that inspire. Some ideas that I share here will be BIG ideas that could effect massive changes on a global scale; some will be smaller in scale, addressing simple changes that we can make in our everyday lives to hopefully become more healthy and productive individuals. It is my firm belief that these smaller changes are no less important than the big ones, because every great movement starts with people who find the time and energy in their daily lives to make it happen.  Please note: Much of what I share and discuss here will originate from other sources, and I will do my very best to give credit where credit is due.

I’ll start by sharing my own inspiration for creating this blog. The idea for it has been simmering on the backburner of my gray matter stove for a couple months now. I am in no way an expert on inspiration, if such a thing exists. My only qualifications for writing a blog on the subject are my keen interest in the process of inspiration and what to do with it, my general openness to new ideas and perspectives, and my readiness to see and seek the profound within the ordinary and the everyday. So why blog about it?

Three reasons:

  1. Discussion: This is the main reason I wanted to create this blog. So you and I can share and discuss the things that inspire us, allowing the ideas that inspire to be more than just passing thoughts through our individual minds. We can instead give them roots in the shared experience of our discussions. Maybe some of them will even change our lives, or the world!
  2. Winnowing: There is a LOT of information out there. Hopefully, together, we can start to distill the mass of information overload into a collection of some of the “better” and more relevant ideas to our lives. To this end, your input will be greatly appreciated and guest posts will be welcome.
  3. Personal outlet: Every day I learn new things and sometimes I feel like those things are too important not to share; so I’ll freely admit that there is a, perhaps somewhat self-indulgent, “personal outlet” aspect to this blog as well. Yet this is also necessary for it to exist.

The name, “ThePossibleList”, stems partly from a TED talk by Hans Rosling in which he stated (8min 55 sec) that he is neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but rather a “very serious possibilist”. I love this new category, and I might have called this blog “ThePossibilist”, but there was also another message that I wanted to convey, and this one has its roots in the process of Brainstorming. If you have ever had any kind of teamwork or leadership training, you have probably discussed at some point “how to brainstorm”. The process goes something like this:

  1. Define a topic.
  2. Set a timer.
  3. Come up with as many ideas as possible and don’t stop writing until the timer goes off: Don’t evaluate – No critical judgments;  Have someone record everyone’s ideas; Go for zany, creative ideas; Aim for quantity
  4. Weed through and clarify ideas only after the timer is done.

In my own experiences with this process in group settings I have observed that it is very difficult for everyone in a group to get on board with one specific part of the process: “Don’t evaluate – No critical judgements”. Half-formed optimisms are often squelched by “realistic” criticisms before they can even make it from pen to page. This always seems to me like a tremendous shame and lost opportunity because I very strongly believe in dreaming the “impossible” and then figuring out how to make it real, rather than dismissing it simply because at first glance it does not seem possible.

So I’m asking my readers to spare the negativity and take a more “possibilist” approach to discussion. As we share and deliberate on ideas that inspire us, let us be slow to dismiss the improbable. Instead let’s talk about dreams and inspiration and HOW we can add them all to The Possible List.