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HEALTH.COM/Ellen Seidman
Jul 15, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

The other night, I meant to chill on the couch with a book. First, though, I decided to neaten up the family room. On a roll, I then tackled a pile of mail on the kitchen counter. When I went to grab a paper clip, I noticed our junk drawer was a disaster, so I organized that. An hour and a half later, I felt content to see everything in its place ... and too zonked to read.

I relax just fine when I'm away on vacation, but in daily life, my to-dos come first. "In our work-driven culture, we perceive relaxation as nonproductive—it often becomes a reward for getting stuff done," says Kathleen Hall, PhD, founder and CEO of the Stress Institute in Atlanta and the Mindful Living Network. Trouble is, the tasks are never-ending (hashtag Sisyphus). Add in a jam-packed schedule and it's no wonder leisure time morphs into chore time.

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Yet kicking back is hardly an unproductive activity; experts say that it keeps us healthy and happy. And research shows that regular de-stressing can help ward off heart disease and obesity, act as a buffer against depression, and even boost immunity against colds. Plus, when you're calm, you perform tasks smarter and more efficiently, leaving you with time to—wait for it—relax. Check out these strategies and inspiration for R in R: relaxing in reality.

1. First, relax your body.

It's hard to sink into a state of zen if you're one big ball of knots. "When you live a life full of demands, your body regularly releases adrenaline and cortisol, increasing energy expenditure that can result in muscle tension," says Gregory Fricchione, MD, director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Try progressive muscle relaxation: Tense the muscles in your toes for at least five seconds, relax for 30, and repeat, working your way through the muscle groups up to your neck and head.

2. Downshift during your commute.

"If you walk in the door decompressed, it gives you a jump-start for the rest of the evening," says productivity expert Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out ($15; amazon.com). Do you take public transportation home? Resist the siren call of email and try a meditation app, such as Insight Timer, Calm, or Stop, Breathe & Think (all free on iTunes and Google Play). "Call a friend or loved one, listen to music—any activity that breaks you out of your normal train of thought should help," says Morgenstern. "One client found it effective to set his relaxation intentions on his way home from work. He'd tell himself, 'I want to enjoy cooking with my partner and make sure so-and-so does homework, but I'll ask in a gentle way,' and so on."

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3. Log off Twitter.

The more often people check social media accounts, texts, and email, the higher their level of stress, revealed the American Psychological Association's 2017 Stress in America report. Findings from the Pew Research Center underline another negative Facebook effect: Women are particularly vulnerable to stress from social media due to being aware of lousy stuff happening to friends.

4. Tame your taskmaker.

An urge to continually tidy up the house or yard may be a response to chaos all around you. According to Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America and author of Overwhelmed ($10; amazon.com), "When you're strapped at work and stretched at home, having things in order can seemingly restore equilibrium." All together now: Yes. This. One sane way to tame that life-is-out-of-control feeling: Quit scattering tasks among your calendar, notepads, emails, sticky notes, and memory. Says Morgenstern, "Decide on a single, reliable system, and it will help turn off the ticker tape of to-dos in your brain."

5. Ask yourself this.

"When people assume that if they don't get to their to-dos, their world will fall apart, that needs to be questioned," says mindfulness expert Ellen Langer, PhD, professor of psychology at Harvard University. Reason with yourself: What's the worst that will happen if you don't declutter tonight? Five years from now, will you be happier that you excavated the coat closet or that you had coffee with a friend? Exactly.

6. Make a joy list.

Oh, the irony: Even when free time falls into your lap, you may have no clue what to do with it (which is how you end up roaming around Whole Foods). Think about what truly mellows you out, then make a list on paper or in your phone. Notes Schulte, "We often get stuck during leisure time because we try to choose the exact perfect thing to do—so if one thing on your list doesn't appeal, pick something else!"

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7. Do a walking meditation.

Not the sit-and-zen-out type? Here's an exercise from Morgenstern that still gets you in the moment and out of your head: As you stroll, engage your senses. Note what you see (buildings with interesting shapes), what you hear (the rustling of leaves), and what you feel (the breeze on your face). Bonus points if you're out in nature; it's more likely to decrease rumination than being in an urban area, per a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

8. Get creative.

It can help you achieve flow, a state in which you're so mindfully immersed in what you're doing that all else recedes into the background. Try your hand at knitting or check out one of those ubiquitous adult coloring books—and resist the urge to simultaneously rewatch Big Little Lies.

9. Wonder and wander.

As kids, we'd lose ourselves for hours poking around in our backyards. As adults, we get stuck in routines and miss out on how captivating discovery can be. "Exploring is the opposite of making to-do lists, where you know exactly where things are headed," says Hall. Hit a fresh hiking trail (check ratings at alltrails.com) or visit a new town.

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10. Don't give yourself an out.

Commit to a regular enjoyable activity, like a monthly racquetball game or cooking class, with your partner or friends. "You're more likely to follow through on a commitment to someone else than to yourself," notes Schulte. "It leaves you no choice but to relax!" One of the rare times when I truly unwind: my bimonthly girls' game night, where we play Scattergories, snack extensively, and laugh our heads off. But thanks to all this inspiration, I no longer have to wait weeks to relax for real.

11. Don't do these things.

One person's nirvana is another person's noooo. If you don't enjoy these supposedly blissful activities, take heart—you're not alone.

  • Gardening: Weeds! Bugs! Heat! Ugh!
  • Breakfast in bed: Not so chill when we have to worry about spilling OJ all over the comforter.
  • Taking a bath: Lovely in theory, but in reality, the water gets cold fast, we get distracted by mold on the tile, and the book always falls in.
  • Massages: Kneading tense muscles? Pleasant to some, painful to the rest of us.
  • Shopping: Enjoyable only until we hit the overly lit dressing rooms.
  • Reading the paper on Sunday morning: Thanks, politics, for the blood pressure spike.

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