I haven’t met many people who say they wouldn’t enjoy feeling more relaxed or even being able to relax-on-demand. The good news is that according to a study published in the journal Nature, learning how to get better at relaxing, not only feels good, but increases our brain’s ability to remember new information (including strengths of mindfulness, compassion and joy).
The researchers in this study recruited eight epileptic volunteers who were shown 100 photos and then 30 minutes later were shown 50 of the same and 50 different photos. They then had to tell the researcher which photos they had seen before and which they had not.
While the participants were using their memory, the researchers used electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes to record electrical activity in the area of the brain where memories are formed.
The findings showed that recognition was highest when participants were in a relaxed state (referencing “theta waves”).
Okay, it’s not necessarily news that we learn better when we’re more relaxed, so why does this matter?
It matters because at this point in time, we happen to live in a petri dish of overstimulation and fractured partial attention on a daily basis. The way we’re living right now stresses out our nervous systems making it really difficult for any new learning (mental or behavioral) to really stick.
Some people think mindfulness meditation is the answer – a tool that is meant to actively relax us. But no, it’s meant to help us cultivate awareness so we can make wise choices, which may be toactively relax ourselves, listen to someone, or do whatever is best in the moment. Mindfulness gives us the awareness for “wise action.”
When it comes to learning anything, whether it be engineering, how to overcome stress eating, or even mindfulness meditation, it would be really helpful to first learn how to actively relax the nervous system.
The entire first month of a new A Course in Mindful Living is dedicated to teaching us how to train our minds and nervous systems how to actively relax so we can be more receptive to learning new things and optimally integrate them into our lives (not to mention, it just feels good to relax too).
Relax the Nervous System Practice for Today
For the scope of this article, one thing that can help you in your day to day is to consider where in the day your body tenses. The simple practice of being aware of this can be profound.
Why? When you notice it, this awareness opens up the choice to often your body, actively relax, breathe out and release the tension that’s there. When you do this through the body, your mind tends to cool down too. Just “soften and release” as a regular practice.
After this, you can open up to whatever you were intending to pay attention to in that moment whether it’s in the middle of a mindfulness meditation, a business meeting or being with your family around the dinner table.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t just stop with you, but has an impact on your relationships. The more stressed we are, typically the more distracted we feel. Learning how to relax in relationship can also facilitate connection which is the central element to well-being. Also, emotions are contagious, so the more you practice relaxing your nervous system, the more relaxed the people around you can feel.
Imagine what would happen if more people practiced actively relaxing and soothing their nervous systems during the day. It starts with you and let’s allow the ripple effects to flow.
Creator of A Course in Mindful Living (Starting October 2, 2017).
Originally published in Mindfulness and Psychotherapy