Relaxation is a skill that requires practice


THIS IS THE PEAK season for us nervous wrecks.

We've been hurtling through the holidays like human pinballs since Halloween, collecting bonus points for tension, anxiety, irritability and fatigue. Just touch us, and we flash, zing and buzz.

How much more relaxed we would be if we had to buy just one gift and it was for us; if all we had to do for the holiday meal was pull a chair up to the table; if all we had to do about decorations was to notice them.

How much more relaxed we would be if we were men.

Women can't relax during the holidays and it is our own fault. We have a death grip on the details and we could no more delegate them to someone else than we could give away one of our children.

Then someone, usually someone whom we perceive as not having done enough to help, will make matters worse by telling us to "just relax," and we will erupt and spill our rage all over, like eggnog at a crowded party.

"Just relax." What an oxymoron. Relaxation is a skill that takes instruction and much practice. You can't "just relax." It is not the same as sleep and it is not as simple as plopping down in front of the television and turning your brain off for a couple of hours.

"Women are not very good at relaxing," says Jennifer Haythornthwaite, an associate professor and researcher in psychiatry and behavior at Johns Hopkins University. She teaches people to relax and studies what happens when they do.

"Women struggle with finding the time and the opportunity. You need the right circumstances when you are trying to develop it as a skill," said Haythornthwaite. "In the initial phase, it is very challenging and it takes a lot more effort."

She makes the comparison to learning to drive: It is much easier to do in an empty parking lot. After you have mastered the skills, you can do it in rush-hour traffic. It is the same with relaxation. Learn to do it, and you can use it when you need it most.

It seems both silly and too true to say that it is hard for women to learn to relax. But relaxation, as Haythornthwaite teaches it, can evoke something she calls "the relaxation response," a set of measureable physiological changes.

"These are not the changes you would find in someone taking a hot bath or taking a walk or reading a book with their feet up," she says. Properly done, relaxation techniques can reduce headaches, decrease pain, lower blood pressure and reduce the side effects of chemotherapy.

Relaxation also can cause changes in the flow of blood and reduce the negative effects of stress on the immune system. It can reduce insomnia and may improve task performance.

It is clear relaxation does more for us than keep us from yelling at the husband and kids.

Haythornthwaite recommends three relaxation methods: deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery. A quiet, comfortable place is necessary, and it would help if you were somewhat relaxed to start. An audio tape helps, too. Be patient with distracting thoughts and gently bring yourself back from them.

"Gradually, you will be able to use these techniques in the real world," she says. She recommends "The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook" by Martha Davis (New Harbinger, $17.95).

But don't start just now.

"This is not the time of year to try to learn relaxation," she says.

Instead, do something pleasant and familiar: take a hot bath, a long walk or put your feet up and read a book. It may not be the same, but it can provide a mental break until you can make the commitment to learn to relax.

"You need that empty parking lot," Haythornthwaite says. "And you are a very fortunate person if you have an empty parking lot right now."

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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