Relax! The Case for Taking It Easy as a Path to Mental Wellness

As a beginner massage therapist, I made a rookie mistake. Like many others, massage therapists who specialized in relaxation therapy were seen by me as lesser-than, doing the easy work while the rest of us studied myofascial release, zero balancing, craniosacral therapy and a host of other expensive, intensive trainings that had us moving limbs, stripping adhered tissue, and in general making our clients sweat and grit their teeth. But, by God, we HEALED!

Psychotherapy is no different. As a supervisor with over twenty years under my belt as a licensed clinical social worker and more than that as a licensed (now in Colorado registered) massage therapist, I work with rookies in this field, who want to work the client, work them hard! Right away!! The clients, exhausted after each session, often develop an aversion for the very thing that should be their succor and safe place…and doesn’t return. If they stay, the process of healing, unless they merely number among the worried well, actually slows. Not to dis the worried well, those with internal resources they can call upon to give them some stamina for the work…some degree of self-confidence, some ability to form friendships and other love relationships, some ability to choose thought (I’ll get into that at another time)…but they’re not really the true measure of the competent psychotherapist, one who can work with complex trauma, depression, anxiety and a host of other treatable mental illnesses.

So I’ve come to have new respect for the relaxation massage therapists. Getting a body to find its ease, and stay there for any length of time, isn’t as easy as I once thought it was. And, too, the value of someone’s learning, ah, this is how my body feels when it’s not on alert all the time, this is how my lungs breathe deeply, this is my mind not racing. When this person learns, on a physical level or what we call tissue (process) memory, what it is to cease from defense, the body rigid in preparation for threat or collapsed in the conviction of helplessness, a host of healing benefits result. The adrenals take a break, the gut recovers, and the brain’s different areas start working together more harmoniously. Sleep improves, and with it, a more complete processing of the day. Digestion improves, and with it, better absorption of nutrients needed for nourishing our tissues.

Clients also, when they start therapy, often want to start with a deep dig. Right away, they want to plow into the core of their misery, and resent it when I initially put on the brakes. As I explain to them, though, it’s a little like a couch potato’s desiring to be able to run a marathon and expecting to be able to run over 26 miles after the first couple of weeks. If I were a personal trainer (and in many ways, I am), I’d start with getting together with them on a nearby high school track, and simply walking with them. We’d be monitoring how quickly they tire, and if they’re doing fine with walking, we’d up the pace. Eventually, we’d do a bit of a walk and a bit of a run. Then run more, building stamina each time. Can you do a mile before you collapse and want to vomit? Great, let’s go for two. If not, let’s cut it down to a half mile.

The value of being able to regulate, to come back to and be in a truly restful state between bouts of stress, is core to mental health. In yoga, beneficial to many, most classes end in savasana, or “corpse pose,” or, as Annie Lamont calls it, “prone yoga.” In this, one simply lies flat, facing up, eyes closed…and practices stillness. The mind is allowed to be present and calm, much like meditation, while the body integrates the benefits of the many poses it’s just experienced. This is, in fact, mindfulness, the basis of a state of mind which best allows for increased self-awareness and nonjudgmental observation of the challenges one faces.

Similarly, when I begin with a client, I first teach regulation skills. We ground, stepping into our bodies, our breath, feeling our weight on the couch, our feet firmly supported by the floor, our energy planted in solid ground. We do an aromatic assessment, finding the essential oil which provides the most soothing scent. We might even decide to do table work, my hand gently cupping the area of greatest turbulence, the adrenals, inviting it to soften and ease. What my clients find, what convinces them that the ability to relax and recover is actually going to promote their healing and not delay it, is the felt experience they’ve often not had in a long time. If ever. Their breath comes in more deeply, their stomach rumbles with a hunger they haven’t felt in a long time. Their thoughts slow. The tension in their bodies melts; if they’re instead in collapse, even dissociation, they begin to feel their bodies.

In short, their physical selves become a safe place. To explore, and to acknowledge the feelings that arise without being flooded and overwhelmed. At some point, clients become more confident that they can afford to feel that which is core to their anxiety, depression, or trauma because they know that, should those feelings edge towards overwhelm, they can return to that place of calm, of relaxation. As if they were back on that high school track, they can simply stop and catch their breath, and recover.

Imagine you’re a young tyke, and you’re just learning how to swim. I wouldn’t throw you into the middle of the deep end and tell you, “good luck, hope you don’t drown!” No, I’d lead you to the shallow end and introduce you to the lip of the pool. You’d learn to clutch it as you started to kick; in time, we’d practice floating, then using your arms. Only after integrating all of these would we attempt to put them all together, as you thrash your way a few feet…always knowing that if you started taking on water, the lip was just a few feet away.

That’s relaxation, that’s regulation.

Therapy is hard work. It’s so much more that talking about your problems with the fantasy that at some point, they’re just going to go away! If you don’t have the skill set for recovery, for catching your breath, for resting the body that produces thought, you’re probably wise to stay on the surface and out of that body. But you won’t heal. That’s what twenty years and over a thousand clients have taught me. The path to your healing begins with the ability to find your ease. Relax.

for a related article, feel free to read “Dancing Stillness