Have you ever noticed how some people have an inner calm about them? They appear serene like a calm pond whilst others seem more turbulent like Cook Strait on a winter’s day. The difference is often in the state of mind and with a little practice and effort you will be surprised how easy it is to “cultivate your calmness”.

Once you start to work on relaxing your mind regularly you will be astonished at the difference it can make to your daily life. You will have less conflict with others, achieve a lot more and be free from the nagging pain that muscular tension causes to so many unsuspected people each day.

Have you got twenty minutes three times a week, or just one hour a week to spare? This article focuses on tension and how you can learn to relax your mind and start to reduce the amount of tension you develop and store around your body.

Many patients I have seen over time suffer from tension and are blissfully unaware how stress not only affects their moods, but can also result in a tight neck and shoulders or result in a period pain, digestive upsets or a tension headache which is the most common reason why people get headaches and rely of pain pills. By adopting a few simple techniques you will be able to free yourself from this avoidable torment and rarely ever have to resort to pain killing drugs again. It is especially important to find the cause for tension because this will allow you naturally to prevent it in the first place.

I’d like to talk about a well known “pioneer of relaxation” in Australian medical history, Dr. Ainslie Meares. My work has been influenced by different mentors over time, and if I could have spent time with just one doctor learning about the mind, stress and meditation, I would have picked Dr. Ainslie Meares. I can highly recommend Dr. Meare’s book called “Relief without Drugs”, a small out of print book from the 1970s. Meares was born in 1910, graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 1940 from the University of Melbourne and gained his Diploma in Psychiatric Medicine in London in 1947. On the basis of his presentation of a collection of seventeen published papers relating to meditation and relaxation therapy, he was awarded Doctor of Medicine by the University of Melbourne in 1958. Dr. Meares was no “ordinary” doctor, he was the first Australian doctor to use hypnotherapy, relaxation and meditation in an actual clinical setting as a means of treatment of psychosomatic and psychoneurotic illnesses in the late 1950s and early ’60s, instead of prescribing powerful drugs like benzodiazepines, anti depressants and various other mind altering drugs aimed at “treating” the many faces and manifestations of anxiety, fear, depression, nervous tension and phobias. I picked up a copy of Dr. Meare’s book “Relief without Drugs” in the early 1980s at a garage sale, and remember how much his advice helped me overcome my own state of anxiety and nervous tension.

It is almost impossible to treat the body without looking at how the mind “feeds” it and I’ll elaborate more later with my tips on how you can deal with tension in your life. I simply won’t believe it if you tell me that you are never tense, I’ve yet to meet a patient who doesn’t have some form of tension in their life. Life is all about tension and relaxation, expansion and contraction, day and night, the yin and the yang. A healthy life is the sensible balance and moderation of all things in life that we should be striving for, as well as the ability to use stress and tension to our advantage and not to our detriment. A trick to understanding tension in your body is to understand that the best knowledge you can have is knowledge about yourself, and who or what “pushes your buttons” particularly, more about this later.

Dr. Meares came to develop much more than a passing interest in relaxation as a treatment for the psychological component of his patient’s chronic ill health, it ended up being his life’s work. He visited India and Nepal in the 1960s in order to study and document the ways Eastern mystics influenced their perceptions through spiritual practices, particularly meditation. On his return he began research on the biological mechanisms underpinning stress and understood that patients who suffered from anxiety, tension and stress suffered more intensely not only with pain, but in addition were the patients who went on to develop sleeping disorders, cognitive dysfunction like poor memory, a poor clarity of mind, easy confusion and brain fog. Stressed and tense patients were also more prone to developing high blood pressure and diabetes and various immune problems such as allergies, infections and cancers and a whole host of other chronic and degenerative diseases. And all this was discovered in the ’50s and ’60s when there was no such thing as an “integrative” doctor of medicine. Doctors prescribed drugs, simple as that, and patients would never question the doctor who like the bank manager was “always right”.

Those were the days before computers and internet, no Google to check on the doctor’s diagnosis. Patients today are even becoming more informed than their doctors. Doctors who combine natural and Western medicine were unheard of in Dr. Meare’s time, professional natural therapists were considered witch doctors, or commune loving hippie types and many were even viewed as fraudulent. Australian naturopath Dorothy Hall, an Australian pioneer of natural medicine, told me that when she stayed at a large hotel in Sydney in the late 1960s and asked for muesli for breakfast she was told “we don’t serve that foreign muck here”.

In Nepal, Dr. Meares was taught a simple meditation technique that he applied in his clinical approach to the treatment of cancer patients. In 1976 he reported in the Australian Medical Journal about a regression of cancer he attributed to intensive meditation. Dr. Meares went on to teach other noteable doctors in the ’70s, such as cancer survivor Dr. Ian Gawler who opened the Gawler Foundation in 1983 as the first cancer support group in Australia. Since then, more than 50,000 people have attended healthy lifestyle, disease prevention programs with a strong emphasis on meditation conducted by Gawler and his team.

I recommend in my clinic the same methods as Dr. Meares, including regular periods of relaxation, awareness of tension in the body and “letting go”, emptying the mind and stillness. Meares favoured a very simple approach to meditation which reduced it to the simplest essence in contrast with more conventional approaches to meditation such as reciting mantras or other “thought frameworks” involving willpower. The difference between Meares’ approach and most others was his emphasis on mental relaxation and mental stillness, rather than actual physical relaxation like breathing patterns or tightening then relaxing muscles. One of the unusual features of his teaching process was that he often would have the windows of his inner city Melbourne clinic rooms open so that the noise of the busy city, especially the sound of the trams, would emphasise that the student’s goal was to gain an inner calmness or stillness despite external tensions in his or her environment. I find that when I have a relaxation session in my clinic room myself, I am still aware of what is going on in the room next to me yet am in a world of my own.

Dr. Meares’ meditation method

Dr. Meare’s method was non-religious, offering a pioneering drug-free alternative to relaxation. He mentions in his book: “The key to our management of stress lies in those moments when our brain runs quietly in a way that restores harmony of function “. He encouraged the patient to just let the mind be still for a mere ten to twenty minutes a day. By allowing the mind to rest, the meditation would affect the flow in other areas of the body and mind. This was one clever doctor years ahead of his time, and one of the first to understand the “mind-body” connection which we are only just beginning to understand.

In his book “Life without Stress”, Dr. Meares describes it this way, “In the meditation that I would advise you to practise there is no striving, no activity of brain function, just quietness, a stillness of effortless tranquillity.” The letting-go approach encourages achieving stillness by simply letting go thoughts when they arise. By inviting stillness, at first in fragments, stillness increases until it becomes a continuous flow of inner calm. Meares stressed the importance of being uncritical of oneself, and of not assessing the process. He used the term “just being” rather than being about something or otherwise engaging the mind. I tell patients that when they are lying on the floor, to “never think of any problem which requires a solution”. And by thinking of a very pleasant place or time in your life, you can instantly transport your mind there.

Allow your mind to wonder, and as the mind relaxes it starts to become more creative which in turn allows you to focus more about nice events rather than stressful ones. The state of meditation is really like being in a daydream, you are aware of what is going on around you but you are happy to stay in this dream like state because it feels good. And feeling good is addictive, you want to keep going back for more of the same.

Eric’s tips on dealing with anxiety and tension

1. Talk it over

Why do you think many people come to see health-care practitioners? My guess is to talk about their physical as well as emotional problems. This is because every patient will naturally talk about the physical symptoms they present with, but will generally launch into how they feel and issues they face with family, friends and employers, etc. Many confide about what is bugging them, and by talking it out it helps to relieve the strain and tension.

Communication allows a person to see their worries and concerns in a different light. You may notice yourself that by talking about your worries and problems with somebody you trust you will often begin to see a clear path. Bottling things up only creates destructive “self-talk” with problems going round and round in your head. Poor communication like this can lead to all kinds of problems, and it forms the basis for most personal and business relationship failures as well. You will become a lot less tense, stressed and anxious by discussing issues affecting you, so talk it over.

2. Escape for a little while

Have you ever lost yourself in a good movie or book? Escaping mentally is a great way to alleviate mental pressure and stress. If you have a really important meeting or engagement coming up, escaping for ten to twenty minutes before the event can work miracles in terms of you being more focused and centred on the mental task at hand. A brief trip like a walk in the park or along the beach is wonderfully refreshing and only takes minutes.

Why escape with a glass of wine or rely on recreational drugs and physically punish yourself? Making yourself “stand and suffer” after you opened that bottle because you couldn’t switch your mind off without booze? Why do you think half the world is on some form of prescribed or recreational drug? People want to free their minds, and by allowing your mind to escape with a book, a musical instrument, prayer, a walk or whatever technique you have developed you will have a “pressure release valve” from the stress and strain of day to day living.

3. Work off your anger

Have you ever felt so angry that you hit an object like a cupboard door, or thrown an object on the ground whilst swearing and cursing under your breath? Well, you are not alone. If you find yourself using anger as a general pattern of behaviour, it is important to remember that anger will always leave you feeling sorry and foolish in the end. If you feel like screaming or lashing out at somebody, try to hold off for just a few minutes, and like most strong emotions it will soon pass.

The thing to do for example is some physical exercise like gardening, a long walk or a game of tennis. Working the anger out of the system this way, along with talking it over will leave you much less tense and more prepared to handle your conflicts and problems more intelligently. Stress has a way of working in on the psyche making some people literally snap. This is how many acts of violence such as murder are committed. If you regularly “defuse” your anger, you will find that you can act calmly and rationally even under the toughest conditions and tension can’t build under these conditions.

4. Are you a perfectionist?

Is your way the highway? Then give in occasionally. Have you noticed that sometimes it is just easier to agree with somebody, even though you KNOW they are wrong and you are right? I have, and it has made me realise that winning doesn’t really matter, keeping the friendship does. Do stand your ground on what you believe is right, but do so calmly and make allowances for the fact that you could be completely wrong. The result will be a huge relief from tension along with the satisfaction of achievement and maturity.

Are you going to still act like a child and “always have to be right”? You will lose a lot of friends if you never give in. Who cares in the end if you really were right or wrong, one of my favourite sayings: “People may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel”. If you truly care about your own stress levels, be aware that when you engage in conversation with somebody else that their stress levels will very much influence yours. If you stay calm and the conversation remains calm, you both leave calm and stress free with a lot less tension.

Does everything you do have to be 100% perfect or you can’t relax? Some people are just born perfectionists, and they can be hard on themselves or others if perfection is not regularly attained. These patients are the ones I see who often go onto develop thyroid and adrenal fatigue issues, because of the extreme demands they place on their physical bodies because their minds just can’t seem to switch off.

Let’s look at Mandy (not her real name) who is a dynamic young mum with two small children. Mandy has boundless energy, is perfectly proportioned and whizzes about like a pocket edition of Wonder Woman, and was the driving force behind two successful businesses before she reached the age of 30. Mandy works out at the gym most mornings, breeds pure bred dogs and belongs to a few women’s groups. When I first saw her as a patient, she had just become the assistant editor of a most influential NZ magazine. Mandy’s love life has been a disaster with several failed relationships. Mandy is an extroverted perfectionist with excess energy, what I call a “full throttle” person with the foot flat to the floor for up to 12 hours a day.

What Mandy hasn’t worked out yet is that her super high achievement lifestyle never seems to bring her that “state of bliss” or knight in shining armour she is looking for. She is always making new friends and literally “wearing out” her old ones. I have spoken with Mandy about the importance of the pursuit of moderation, and instead of her undertaking 20 things in one day, to say no to ten of them and allowing more “Mandy time”. This lady’s thyroid gland is hyperactive, and is it any wonder?

5. Do one thing at a time

When I grew up as a baby boomer in the ’60s I never heard of a word called “multi-tasking”, we certainly had no cell phones or computers. We seem obsessed these days with being able to do two or more things at once, and keep lists of all the tasks we want to complete. Many people are so busy with their own lives but manage to keep on saying “yes, I can do that”, and later think “why on Earth did I say yes?”. So before you promise to do something for somebody else, first think the important tasks you have set for yourself for today and if you won’t be putting yourself under a lot of stress by taking on that extra work.

To people under tension, an ordinary work load looks so huge that it’s almost painful to tackle it. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, try to tackle the most important task first then you will find that rest flows easily. Say for example you have ten things to do, just write them all down and mark them in priority with 1 being critically important, 2 moderately and 3 can wait a few days to a week. You have just clarified your priorities and set your mind at ease. And doesn’t it feel good when you can cross that list off? Do one thing at a time and do it well, then move on. By learning when to say no and completing tasks you set yourself you have more time to relax, more “you” time without that feeling that you have to be continually doing something. Are you obsessed with checking emails continually?

Learn to slow down and be less accessible by way of phone or email, it is important to remember that you need time to work and time to relax. Try not to blur the whole thing; it can get a bit messy that way and you and your family will suffer. Work hard and then relax hard out.

6. Go easy with criticism

How hard and critical are you with yourself and others? I have found that tense people are often critical people. They can tend to be hard on themselves and others. Do you expect a lot from others and then get disappointed when they don’t deliver? It could be your partner, or a child who you are trying to squeeze into your preconceived plans or maybe even try to control or take over to suit yourself.

Some tense people I have observed can even be considered to be “control freaks” at times. Instead of being critical of others, search out and point out their good points and help them develop their weaknesses without exposing them. Nobody likes to be criticised, do you? I often ask a patient if they have a family member or friend who they are at conflict with regularly, or who they don’t often agree with. Do they dread going to a social family event like a wedding or a family Christmas party because aunty Maureen or uncle Frank will be there?

If you deal with somebody regularly who you do not get on with like perhaps the “in-laws”, become aware how your body may tense up, how the muscles in your face may tighten up, or do your shoulders become tight when you are around this person? Emotional stress and tension is often felt subconsciously with thoughts and feelings about events or people creating mind-body patterns such as jaw clenching or teeth grinding later that night in bed, perhaps insomnia and muscular tension throughout the body the next day.

In addition, emotional stress also causes adrenalin to be released causing muscles to fire up and be tense resulting in pain, more anxiety, your heartbeat quickens and blood sugar levels may increase which can make you feel “hyper”. By being nice to others, they in turn will be more pleasant towards you and will feel more relaxed because less conflict will occur, and the result means less tension. Adrenalin then will not be released and you don’t get the physical responses either.

There will be plenty of research showing that tense and anxious people are much more prone to all forms of chronic illnesses, because the hormonal systems underpinning our system are geared towards restoring our bodies after any kind of stress. These hormonal systems affect every part of our being, so it stands to reason that when this stress defence mechanism itself breaks down that we become ill and may eventually even die as a result of continued stress and conflict.

7. Regular TPM (twenty peaceful minutes) sessions

Ok, so this is where I am asking for a commitment. I would like you to start regular relaxation sessions for yourself at least three times weekly for about twenty minutes at a time. Now tell me honestly, is sixty minutes a week too much? Some folk may spend three times this much just doing something frivolous like watching American sitcoms, surfing on the internet, chatting on the phone or wasting time by not planning what they are doing next.

How would you like to have a sense of inner calm and reduced tension and irritability like you haven’t experienced for years? It is so simple, just pick a carpeted floor, not a bed, and lie down on your back. Take your shoes off and loosen your waistband. Make sure you won’t get disturbed – no kids or phones around you, etc. I want you to just relax and take a nice slow deep breath in, being sure to breathe in “through your tummy”, don’t breathe in a shallow pattern.

It is all weird and foreign, I know, but it doesn’t involve weird chants or religious beliefs. I can assure you that very soon you will get the hang of it, these mini siestas will rejuvenate your energy, allowing you to stay relaxed and focused well into the evening instead of collapsing on the sofa never to stir again until bedtime. This extra burst of energy will allow you to spend time with your family. The ultimate time to have your TPM sessions are between 2 – 4.00pm, this is because cortisol (a main stress hormone) is then at its lowest point of production during the day and you will naturally feel a sense of “three thirty-itis”.

With these sessions, your heart rate will drop, your digestion will relax and you will soon start to experience a sense of inner calm. With a sense of inner calm comes a release of tension – you will actually become aware of the muscles that tighten up when you are more relaxed.

I think that it is as important to schedule these relaxation sessions as it is to schedule your weekly business meetings. The most progressive organisations realise that a highly productive workforce is not achieved by people pushing themselves until they drop. You don’t need to lower your performance standards; you just need to recognise that being at home with the kids or being at work and expecting a high level of productivity requires a high amount of energy which in turn requires your body to recover as well.

Look at the big picture, how much time do you take off each week? And how many weeks a year do you schedule for fun? I “must be available” is the passionate excuse today for having a cell phone with all the whistles and bells. Do you “have to” monitor urgent calls, most of which aren’t urgent at all?

By slotting in regular TPM sessions you can dramatically help to reduce the amount of tension in your life and you will soon realise that being available at all times can be a trap as well. How on Earth did our grandparents survive, I sometimes think, without cell phone technology or computers? I think they coped fine and always appeared to have the time to talk. By making sure you take regular “time out” from your busy life, you will start to begin to replenish your mental and emotional energy levels and actively diffuse tension in your life.

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Eric Bakker is the clinical director of The Naturopaths and holds a Bachelor Degree of Science majoring in Complementary Health Care, as well as separate diploma qualifications in Naturopathy, Herbal Medicine and Homeopathy. Eric has 20 years clinical experience in natural medicine, and received post-graduate natural medicine training in Australia, India, America as well as New Zealand. Eric has four children and lives in the sunny Hawkes Bay

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