Got Some Free Time? Here's How to (Actually) Unwind
There’s this expectation that any time we get a break from the hustle—whether it’s us clocking out on a Friday, taking time off for a holiday, or even taking a sick day—that we can instantly hit the brakes and tap into chill mode.
But I know firsthand that it’s not always that easy.
While some people get the Sunday scaries, I get the Friday Freakouts. Every Friday night, I send my last email, power down my computer, give my co-workers a “See you on Monday!”—and then head out into the Weekend World, feeling utterly anxious.
I love the idea of Fridays, but, in practice, it’s difficult.
I can’t just instantly go from a fast-paced hustle to feeling as free as a woman in a Sandal's commercial.
My process of “decompressing” isn’t pretty. It’s not me sitting on a couch in a face mask and tweeting TGIF—it’s me, sitting on my couch, anxiously trying to let myself relax.
Turns out, there's a name for this: It's called "relaxation-induced anxiety." And a new study found that people who are sensitive to shifts in their emotion—like moving from a relaxed state to a state of fear—are more likely to feel it when trying relaxation exercises. Why: They rationalize that by staying anxious they won't have to worry about becoming anxious if a curveball comes their way.
"People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts,” Michelle Newman, a professor of psychology at Penn State and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.
Newman says that the more you push past your relaxation-induced anxiety, the "more you realize you can do it" and start allowing yourself to decompress. And that's key: The people who are often prone to relaxation-induced anxiety are the ones who need relaxation exercises the most. (I'm slowly raising my hand over here…)
I’ve picked up a few tricks in my quest to get better at decompressing—here, just a few things I’ve learned that help me let go and find some calm.
1. Don’t Fight the Feeling
Part of my struggle to decompress is feeling like I have to do it ASAP. The moment the weekend starts, I feel like I have to feel relaxed immediately—or else I’m wasting away my precious weekend time. But I’ve learned it’s better to accept feeling stressed rather than try to fight it.
Research shows that people who accept their negative emotions without rushing to change them or avoid them are able to cope with their stress more successfully. And when we recognize and accept our negative emotions, it’s a more effective way to change them. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but it works.
When I have free time but still find my shoulders up to my ears, I try to get curious rather than all judge-y. “Huh, this is interesting,” I say to myself. “I have nothing to stress over yet I’m feeling stressed. Curious.” And that’s it—I don’t argue with my feelings, I don’t try to bury them. I just give them a shout-out and then keep going about my evening.
It might feel weird, but just recognizing the disconnect in how you’re feeling and how you think you’re supposed to feel can lessen the power of those negative vibes.
It might sound like a no-brainer, but part of decompressing means disconnecting. It means staying away from work emails—if you can—and even staying away from social media, which can create similar feelings of urgency and pressure.
“Being constantly connected to smartphones and social media spreads your attention thin, thus sapping you of energy at a time when you’re trying to recharge,” psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert explains in the Huffington Post.
Get. intentional. about. your. screen. time. I sometimes find myself impulsively checking emails or Slack on a Saturday morning, and then I start wondering, “Huh, why do I suddenly feel stressed?” Check your instinctive tech habits when they pop up.
3. Get Present
It can help to give yourself space to simply be as you transition out of a hectic time to a chill time. The Harvard Business Review suggests spending at least 10 minutes—maybe even during your commute—with your phone and other distractions put away. “Let go of any thoughts that arise. Attend to your breath. Doing so will allow you to let go of the stresses of the day so you can return home and be fully present.”
If you’re not a fan of this kind of traditional meditation (I typically end a five-minute meditation with a mental to-do list that has me more stressed than zen), try doing a mindful activity. (Yes, you can get mindful while doing things.)
Try single-tasking and getting lost in one activity that requires your attention. Maybe it’s gardening, cooking, playing an instrument, even cleaning the kitchen. I personally love a good mindful coloring book.
Whatever you’re doing, get present in the action, your surroundings, the sounds you hear—try to tap into something with all your senses, if you can. I know for me, focusing on just one thing can clear out the stress of the day without me even noticing.
4. Give Yourself Permission to Rest
Sometimes, my biggest blocker to decompressing is letting myself decompress. Letting myself say “ta ta for now” to all the tasks that I didn’t finish, all the problems waiting for me when I get back to the hustle, all the opportunities I’ve left up in the air. We can feel pressure to keep working through our free time in order to excel—but that truly only leads to burnout. “If you sprint while holding your breath, you’re never going to be able to run another race because you’ll exhaust yourself,” leadership coach Lenore Champagne Beirne tells Shine. “You’ll be more effective if you take in your needs to fuel you.”
Know this: You’ve worked hard. You’ve put in the hours. You deserve to rest. And taking time to recharge now will only make you stronger and better equipped for the hustle when you get back to it. I have to remind myself of this when I find myself sliding back into my emails on a Saturday afternoon.
Pressing pause will only help you have more momentum when you get back to it. Give yourself space to decompress, however long it may take and however messy it may look. And remember: You’re not alone if it looks pretty messy.
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