One area of agreement between the Reich and Lowen tradition and mainstream healthcare is the role of relaxation to reduce suffering. Relaxation, though, seems to have several common meanings:
Less Functional Ways of Relation
- An artificial state of calm known as the opiate or endorphin response. The state of the body need not and usually does not match the subjective feeling. Endorphins are actually an indication of strong stress to the body. This response can allow the mind to feel quite good when the body is in grave distress. Now, if endorphins come from aerobic exercise, the conditioning effect is cited as evidence of benefit to the body. Aerobic conditioning effect does not include muscle lengthening (see below) or good alignment. Usually posture becomes more distorted and muscles hard and shortened. (Very top level athletes will do many other things to combat this, but the casual user almost never has the time or inclination for that) A common history for a person that comes to love aerobic exercise for relaxation is injuries that prevent further exercise. This comes about because over time, whatever the heart and lung capacity, the body becomes very tight and less suited to movement over time. Knee and feet injuries are extremely common. Over time a deep chasm can arise between the state of the body and the state of the mind.
Chronic prescribed or unprescribed opiate use can have a similar effect. Alcohol and nicotine are also used in this way of course.
- A decrease in arousal and vigilance. High arousal often upsets other people nearby who understandably fear erratic behavior. A common admonition in this situation is "relax!" but relaxation can not be willed. High arousal tends to seek more stimulation which contributes to the arousal. Here the will power can be used with benefit to resist the inclination and go deliberately into an environment of less stimulation.
- A state of detachment from cares or worries A healthy person is able to detach intentionally at times from worries. This is healthy because it allows problems to be addressed at a more opportune time and therefore be less disruptive. A person can also arrange soothing around the issue and therefore be more relaxed and creative. Also, many problems either work themselves out or simplify simply with time. And still further, many problems benefit from a different type of background processing that is slower and unconscious. This is epitomized by the phrase "sleep on it.' But to sleep well implies being able to detach from a worry.
- A state of absorption into something interesting. This is also known as concentration or voluntary attention. It is essentially dissociation. It is often substituting reward for relaxation. It can decrease distress but can also be addicting. Of course absorption into research about a problem can bring a capacity to act effectively to change it.
- A state of distraction by something amusing or entertaining. Having some fun might translate into having pleasure, which is a great contributor to relaxation. Also pleasant distraction can allow time for unconscious processing as detailed below in number 7. However, modern entertainment with video is set apart from the here and now, and can lead to further estrangement from the body and the real.
So it seems that 'relaxation' as commonly understood involves either the state of the body, or dissociation from the state of the body. For all the benefits of flexible and temporary dissociation, chronic or permanent dissociation produces denial and unrealistic behavior.
A common experience is the 'mental' reframing of a situation, so that, in thought, what had been deemed bad is deemed good. Now this is very close to the idea of acceptance, it which a person gets away from thinking of 'what is' as bad. Acceptance is a great stress reliever. But acceptance has to happen in the body as well, not just the cerebral cortex. Chronic denial does not necessarily protect the body from stress, though it might. Chronic denial, however, precludes honest contact with others. The result of this is a pleasurelessness in relationships.
More Functional Ways of Relaxation
- A state of calm, in which a person feels no urgency or need for protection. This is characteristic of ventral vagal shift (parasympathetic dominance). The state of the body matches subjective feeling. This comes about naturally when a healthy person has no strong demands on them either from others or their own ego. It can also be helped about by breathing practice, meditation, light exercise, beauty, ritual, touch, bodywork, and several other things.
- A balance in muscle tension. A common situation in the modern body is chronically tight muscles. Tightened muscles alone are generally believed to tend toward a sympathetic shift. Beyond that, patterns of tension affect the sensory system in ways that push painful or threatening feelings out of awareness--this is the idea behind the concepts of segments and armor. Work with muscle and fascia lengthening is perhaps the best way to restore the natural but often lost capacity to relax. Moreover, relaxing this way does not add to dissociation.