We’ve come to the point in human history where “do you know how to breathe?” has become a trick question.
Being healthy has become much more complex than having a six-pack or being able to run a marathon. The concept of being healthy is no longer only measured against the efficiency of your pancreas or your resting heart rate. It now extends to the mind.
This can be a scary thing not only because the mind is a fairly unpredictable non-physical entity but because deep down we’ve really all just about lost it at this point. Now that COVID-19 has forced us back into our homes and challenged us to rethink life, there’s never been a louder call for the importance of being relaxed — so much so that it’s become stressful.
Like a pastor preaching to a church full of damned misfits, Instagram influencers and self-appointed gurus have called it upon themselves to define what it means to be mindful and relaxed.
This ranges from meditating on a sun-filled porch to soaking in an extra frothy bathtub surrounded by enough candles to put a coven to shame. Apps like Calm and Headspace tout calmer days and better sleep with the sounds of nature and gushing waters, while Goop wants us to stay in the present and live for the future via journalling.
Some might say it takes the resolution of an Olympian and a bit of practice to be mindful, but as a person who has neither bathtubs nor the patience of Buddha I’m here to liberate you from the shackles of meditation and three-hour-long bubble baths. Personalities make a big difference in the way people can and want to relax. How do you know if you’re doing it right, you ask? For starters, it shouldn’t be stressful.
It’s your mind’s job to think thoughts. For something that’s supposed to mellow you out, activities celebrating mindfulness can be aggravating sometimes: When should I do it? How do I start? What am I doing? If the hypnotic lull of guided meditations help, you’re one lucky cookie, but if that’s not your jam, don’t force the thoughts out of your head only to leave feeling lesser and frustrated.
Quieting my inner asshole is a lot harder for me than it might be for others, for example, so I unwind by putting together pre-mixed cake while Robert Plant screams in my ear. Other days I shock my ageing body into a high-intensity workout and emerge disgustingly sweaty but feeling victorious and quite incredibly, ready for anything.
Shutting out the world is truly a gargantuan task especially when modern society is so loud — that plus the fact that your personal space has now been intruded by work. You don’t have to feel obligated to deep-breathe for 20 minutes in a corner just because Gwyneth Paltrow says it’s the secret to eternal sanity.
Relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA) is a real psychological diagnosis which affects as many as 15 percent of people, and it’s perhaps one of life’s biggest ironies. The crippling guilt of wasting precious free time on something seemingly unproductive to relax can bring around feelings of anxiety.
“The really interesting piece is that present-moment awareness without the intention to relax has actually been shown to increase relaxation,” says Christina Luberto, a clinical psychology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and a leader in the research of RIA.
“It’s this paradoxical thing where when you try to not relax, you might find yourself more relaxed than when you’re intentionally trying to relax.” Researchers are still trying to figure out how to best help sufferers chill out by — and this is the complicated bit — relaxing.
If you must watch serial killer documentaries to feel whole again, do it without guilt. If you must coerce your better half into participating in a questionable TikTok dance, try your luck. And if you feel like you can’t relax if you’re not doing something, then by all means keep busy.
Create boundaries and keep to them, but if you’re not in tune with your needs, no amount of diaphragmatic breathing will take away the stress the infected world has inflicted you with.
Perhaps if we all took the question “do you know how to breathe?” as another way of asking “do you know how to live?”, we’d all be happier, more satisfied beings today.