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More PsychNotes: Mindfulness and Relaxation Methods

May 6, 2016       
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The Time to Relax is When You Don't Have the Time
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

I just noticed that the number of visitors to my website dropped dramatically in the last few days. I wondered why that would be. Then I noticed the date. This is college exam time in the U.S. A lot of college counseling centers recommend my website and apps so there can be a noticeable change when students are busy with exams instead of listening to the relaxation and motivation audios.

You would think this is a good thing—they are busy studying rather than using apps. However, my son develops card game apps and he doesn't get that kind of drop off in usage. So, I suspect, a lot of college students are playing games on their mobile devices because they are “stressed out” but aren't using the tools that could help them manage the stress during the exams.

One of the biggest problems that interferes with using the cognitive-behavioral tools effectively is time. Actually, it is perception of time. But I will get back to that. Typically, when clients seeking treatment for stress didn't listen to the relaxation audios or even do breathing exercises and I asked them “why” they explained: “I didn't have the time.”

Throughout my career, people would always comment during the Christmas season, “You must be really busy this time of year--everyone's stressed!” The reality, though, that was my slowest time of the year. Nobody had time to see a therapist.

So when people need help the most is usually when they don't have the time to seek it. At least, that is their perception. However, as Sidney Harris, the journalist said, “ The time to relax is when you don't have the time for it.”

Many times, clients would first see me months after major stress occurred in their lives: “I don't know why I'm having problems now, it was last year when I was really stressed.” What they didn't know was that by not taking the time to deal with the stress, their body was physically impacted creating chronic problems. Those problems, then, take more time to cope with often leading to an ongoing cycle of stress.

The problem with the concept of not having time is that people perceive time as immutable—there is only a fixed amount and when you use it up, it is gone. Seems reasonable, doesn't it? However, another way to perceive time is based on how we use it, not on how much time we have. Thus, some things consume our time and other things give us time.

In the case of stress, our time is consumed by unnecessary behaviors. When stressed, we become more forgetful and repeat actions. We make more mistakes which takes time to correct. We don't take care of ourselves with diet and exercise which leads to being more susceptible to illness. And as I said about college students, they probably play more mobile games when stressed because “I need to relax—I'm stressed!”

The problem is that people often think of “relaxing” as engaging in mindless activities like playing games or watching TV. Instead, what I mean is to use the relaxation methods such as guided imagery, breathing, and mindfulness. These methods of relaxing provide us with more time. When you take the time to relax, to breathe, and to be more mindful you gain time. You may think you don't have time for a 15 minute relaxation audio twice a day when you are stressed. Or, you don't have time to focus on mindful breathing throughout the day.

But if you take the time to relax, you will have more time to accomplish what you need to because you will be more focused. When you are focused, your memory is better and you can accomplish more in a shorter period of time.

Truly, the time to relax is when you don't have the time.

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