A Doctor's Top 5 Ways To Relax Naturally

Written by James S. Gordon, M.D.

James S. Gordon, M.D., is a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, former researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health and, Chair of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, and a clinical professor of Psychiatry and Family Medicine at Georgetown Medical School.

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A few years ago, I wrote a book called Unstuck. I gave it that name because virtually everyone who walked into my medical office said that she was “stuck” and didn’t want to be.

Many of these patients, who were depressed and desperate to feel better, didn’t want to take or keep taking drugs that weren’t helping them as much as they had hoped. These drugs were also causing nasty side effects — weight gain, GI problems, headaches, loss of libido — that just left them more depressed.

But it was also clear to me that people didn’t have to be depressed to feel “stuck.” Men, women and kids who were anxious also felt stuck, with their worry motor running all the time. And people with chronic illness were stuck in harmful, repetitive, physiological patterns that caused pain and diminished their liveliness.

And, of course, there had also been times when I myself felt stuck, feeling lonely or continuing to do things that frustrated me or hurt those I loved. All these stuck people.

As a psychiatrist who uses psychotherapy along with Mind-Body approaches like meditation, nutrition and exercise, I began to reflect on everything I’d heard from my patients over the years, as well as from the thousands of health professionals I’ve worked with and trained. What were the most effective ways of getting us all unstuck?

In this process of exploration and experimentation, I came up with a number of techniques that reliably raised my own and others’ energy, decreased our fear, and lifted the clouds that had closed us in. Here are five of my favorite easy and effective methods:

1. Soft belly breathing

You might remember this method from my previous post, 4 Techniques Used Around The World To Heal Trauma. It’s a simple way of quieting the stress and fight or flight responses, which are major contributors to anxiety, depression and chronic illness.

The instructions are basic: slowly and deeply breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth with your belly soft and relaxed. To focus your mind, you can say “soft” as you breathe in and “belly” as you breathe out. If it’s comfortable for you, keep your eyes closed — this will help remove external distractions. If your thoughts wander, notice them, let them come and let them go. Gently bring your mind back to “soft belly.”

When we're stuck, we tend to be anxious and reactive. As “soft belly” quiets the anxiety, the mind opens up and new possibilities become more easily available. Technically, soft belly stimulates the vagus nerve, the part of the autonomic nervous system that balances fight or flight. It reduces activity in the amygdala, which generates fear and agitation, and enhances activity in the prefrontal cortex, which promotes thoughtfulness, good decision making, and compassion.

2. Taking a walk

Moving the body is the most direct way of breaking up the physical tension and emotional rigidity that are hallmarks of being stuck.

There are obviously many ways to move, and you can choose what works best for you. But I like walking because it’s always available and easy for just about anybody to do. It also, quite literally, changes the scenery. Just about everyone I know who does creative work uses walking to break the impasses that come periodically.

If you can, walk in nature. The country’s great, but a park works, too. A number of recent studies have shown that walking in nature is particularly useful for reducing stress and improving mood.

3. Perusing a bookstore

I've found that going to a bookstore stimulates my imagination and helps me to get off the treadmill of repetitive and unproductive thoughts.

Once inside, I allow myself to gravitate in whatever direction I’m pulled. If this sounds like an unconscious process, that’s because it is. Perhaps, predictably, I might move first toward the psychology section, but then I might be drawn to history or mysteries or plays or spirituality. I pick up whatever book seems to be calling to me and read for a bit. Sometimes I buy a book that I didn’t even know existed, most recently Daniel Goleman’s A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World. I found it so refreshing, and it reminded me why I do the work that I do.

Other times it may be a novel I’ve always wanted to read or one whose first pages read as if they had been written just for me, right now. I don’t know that there’s ever been a time when a visit to a bookstore has disappointed me.

4. Mindful eating

It’s possible to bring mindfulness into any activity — whether that’s breathing, walking, cleaning the dishes or diapering a baby. But since I eat regularly and generally enjoy it, I find mindful eating to be particularly attractive.

It's very simple: Sit quietly in front of your food, and notice what it looks like and how it smells. Then, bring it to your mouth and very slowly chew it, savoring all the tastes and textures.

This experiment with mindfulness makes the food taste far better. It also strengthens all my muscles of appreciation and helps freshen thoughts, sensations, ideas, and even relationships that had gone stale.

Mindful grocery shopping and cooking make it even better. In our Food As Medicine trainings, we make the point over and over: the information we provide about good nutrition’s contribution to physical and mental health is only half of the therapeutic equation. Bringing mindfulness to the way we eat changes our biological as well as our psychological response to food — making our digestion far more efficient, creating a joyous communion with others, and helping us to effectively use good food’s nutrients.

5. Thanking nature

Shyam Singha, my friend and teacher — of meditation, acupuncture, osteopathy, and yes, cooking — always used to urge me and his other students to “thank Nature” before we began any of the meditations he taught us or before we ate the amazing meals we helped him prepare.

It was a way of reminding us that everything that we have in our lives ultimately comes from nature — or, if you will, God — and that the proper attitude toward all our experiences is one of gratitude.

When I’m able to pause for a moment and do so, in the middle of worrying about a deadline or ruminating about the past, I feel a sense of softening in my body. The world outside looks a little brighter and more welcoming and, altogether unbidden, a smile comes to my face.

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