You’re mentally exhausted yet can’t seem to relax your mind. Because you’re too busy. And you can’t shut your mind down (no matter how hard you try).
Although you know that you need downtime, resting feels unproductive and you think that you might lose ground if you learn to relax. Isn’t your strong work ethic the main reason you’ve been so successful?
But you know that you can’t keep this up. That feeling both physically and emotionally drained will eventually hurt you. To help you learn how to relax your mind, we’re about to cover:
- Why (as a high-achiever) it’s so hard to relax your mind when stressed.
- How to shift your mentality around relaxing (so that you can prioritize it without feeling guilt).
- 5 simple ways to relax your mind no matter how busy you are.
Before moving on, be sure to grab my must-have stress management resource for busy professionals (5-Minute Stress Solutions). In this guide, you’ll get 8 proven strategies to reframe your thoughts, relax your mind and drastically reduce stress.
Table of Contents
Why It’s So Hard To Relax: The Overachievers Dilemma
I understand how easy it is to feel like you’re doing something wrong… simply by taking time to relax your mind. As a lawyer (who practiced for over 18 years), I used to think that I couldn’t take the time either. There were too many people relying on me, I was busy and so on.
And whenever I did set aside time to relax, I’d end up:
- Checking email.
- Answering every phone call I got (that – admittedly – could have waited).
- Getting a head-start on my next project or deliverable.
I’d even find ways to check off as many of my personal to-do’s that I could.
Whenever things got quiet and I tried to relax my mind, it would end up spinning (like a broken record of repetitive thoughts). I couldn’t stand that feeling. Which is part of the reason why I tried to stay busy.
Sound like you? [It’s no wonder you’re mentally exhausted!]. The problem is that you’re caught up in what I like to call the overachiever’s dilemma.
[Recommended Reading: How To Stop Feeling Guilty About Taking Care of Yourself].
The Real Reason Your Mind Won’t Relax
Human beings are biologically programmed to learn. We’re wired for growth and love to master things. As a high achiever, you’ve taken that to new heights and:
- Have chosen a demanding profession.
- Strive to do your best (perhaps even struggle with perfectionism).
- Value both productivity and efficiency.
- Believe that mastery requires you to push yourself as hard as you can (most – if not all- of the time).
And so your calendar is always full and you rarely have time to rest. Resting doesn’t feel productive, does it? Which (of course) is the real problem.
But ask yourself if that’s really true. Because mastery is about being skilled and in command (and burning out is the opposite of being in command).
[Worried that you might be burning out? Listen to Episode #19 of the Life & Law Podcast to learn the common symptoms for burnout and how to overcome it].
An Unexpected Cure For How To Relax Your Mind (Without Stressing Over It)
The cure is within you. It all comes down to how you think.
What’s getting in your way of being able to relax when stressed are your thoughts. What you tell yourself about productivity, mind-wandering and what relaxation even is. It’s time to change those stories – to reframe them.
The good news is that you have help (from science)…
The Science Behind Rest and Relaxation
Rest and relaxation improves both your physical and mental health. You improve physically by:
- Reducing stress-related hormones;
- Decreasing your heart and breathing rate (which also lowers stress levels);
- Increasing blood flow to your muscles; and
- Lowering blood pressure.
These physical health benefits have an impact on your cognitive abilities. When relaxation becomes a habit, stress levels become naturally lower (regardless of how hectic life gets), which makes you feel better emotionally and mentally. Regularly scheduled rest and relaxation:
- Increases your ability to focus and be present,
- Helps you sleep better,
- Enables you to think more creatively,
- Increases your energy levels, and
- Increases productivity.
Think about what this all means… there’s a productive purpose for downtime. Relaxing your mind (and taking time off to do ‘nothing’) won’t just increase performance. It’s what enables you to perform at peak levels.
This is obviously a mindset shift. One that you need to embrace if you want to learn how to relax your mind (no matter how busy you are).
[Learn the science behind taking regularly scheduled breaks in Episode #22 of the Life & Law Podcast: Your Secret Ingredient To Stress Less (Taking Breaks)].
The Surprising Truth About Your Wandering Mind
What about the fact that whenever you take time to yourself, your mind goes into overdrive (spinning out of control)?
Contrary to popular belief, mind wandering isn’t a bad thing. It actually needs to wander to be healthy. It’s even recommended that you allow your mind to wander daily.
The truth is this: a spinning mind is a sign that your brain is trying to push subconscious thoughts out. They’re trapped within your subconscious. Mind wandering allows them to get out (and also helps you to make connections and problem-solve).
The good news is that once you create a habit of allowing your thoughts to come out, your mind won’t feel so cluttered. The number of thoughts trying to get out will diminish – and become manageable.
Reframing How You Think About Relaxing When Stressed
I’ve given you the science behind why relaxing your mind is a good thing. Unfortunately, that’s not always enough for complete buy-in.
It’s too easy to fall into bad habits – especially when subject to a tight deadline or you have too many things on your plate. Which is why I want you to begin by reframing your thinking around this issue.
Use the following 3 strategies to reframe your thoughts around what it means to relax your mind so that you don’t fall back into bad habits:
Reframe Strategy #1: Identify Patterns (& The Thoughts Behind Them)
Pay close attention to (and consider keeping a journal so that you can log) those moments when you’ve:
- Pushed through (instead of taking a break).
- Said yes (even though you wanted to say no).
- Felt guilty for an act of self-care.
Any time you notice this thinking, sit with your thoughts and ask yourself what’s behind those feelings.
Get curious about evidence to the contrary and how you might counteract this belief. Challenge those beliefs by asking whether it’s really true. And identify how it might not be true.
For example, if you feel guilty about taking time to rest, ask yourself why that is. What belief is behind it? If it’s because you feel more productive by pushing through, ask how taking that time will help you to be more creative, productive and fruitful.
This exercise supports the mental shift you’re trying to make.
[Recommended: Why Mindset Is Everything: The Key to Success & Happiness].
Reframe Strategy #2: Look for Evidence
Your second strategy to reframe your mentality around relaxing when stressed and busy is this: proactively look for evidence that supports relaxation. Here’s how:
- Identify the activities that have helped to relax your mind in the past. [Don’t forget to include simple things such as sleeping, napping, and reading a recreational book.]
- On a piece of paper, write down the type of relaxation activity and time spent relaxing.
- Analyze the effect of these activities on your mental and physical health, your cognitive abilities, your mood, and your productivity levels.
I recommend keeping a journal to track all of your relaxation benefits going forward (until relaxation becomes a long-term habit).
As you start to make more connections between renewal activities and your performance and productivity levels, your beliefs around relaxation will change (and your guilt will begin to melt away).
NOTE: you can also go through this exercise using someone who you admire that’s successful and takes time to relax.
Reframe Strategy #3: Close Open-Ended Loops
Open-ended loops are activities that don’t have an end-point (or don’t have one that’s in sight). Some examples are:
- Checking and responding to email (a never-ending activity that always seems urgent but is often not a priority).
- Pushing a long-term project forward that’s easy to get lost in without setting clear deadlines around what you want to accomplish that day.
- Researching a new idea without an end-goal of where you’re going (or when to stop).
The problem with open-ended loops is that, because there’s no clear deadline or stopping point, your mind tends to convince itself that it must finish or continue (even when you don’t need to).
To help counteract them, close your open-ended loops by (1) breaking large projects into small, manageable tasks with deadlines and (2) blocking off specific time each day for regular tasks (such as email and administrative tasks).
[Want to increase productivity? Listen to Life & Law Podcast Episode #9: How To Be Productive Part 1 (A Productive Mindset)].
Okay, so now that you’re tackling your thoughts and beginning to reframe relaxation as something that’s for a productive purpose, what then? What do you actually do to help relax your mind (especially when you’re busy)?
5 Effective Ways For How To Relax Your Mind Quickly
Here are 5 simple ways to relax your mind that can be used at any time (and bonus: are quick ways to give your mind a much-needed break):
#1: Simple Meditation
If you’ve yet to try meditation (and even if you have, but it didn’t take), it’s time to give mindfulness meditation a try. The point of meditating is to give your brain a mental rest (and so – of course – it helps to relax your mind).
Moreover, meditation has been proven to:
- Boost concentration.
- Increase the cortical thickness in the hippocampus (which governs memory and learning).
- Lower amygdala brain cell volume (the area of the brain responsible for stress, anxiety, and fear).
And the best part is that you don’t need to devote a lot of time to it. I recommend getting started with just a 3-minute meditation (and build from there if you’d like to).
Please note that it’s 100% okay if your mind wanders while meditating. It’s normal (and the act of noticing and then bringing your focus back to your focal point is how you train your brain to become more present and focused).
Not sure how? This Psychology Today article is a great resource on how (and why) to get started.
#2: Mindful Observation
Mindful observation helps focus your mind on something non-stressful. By focusing on something specific, you force your brain to let go of whatever is stressing you out.
Here’s how to practice mindful observation:
- Choose an object to observe (that doesn’t induce stress). Make sure that it’s NOT an electronic device.
- Set a timer for 1-3 minutes and use that time to fully observe the object you’ve picked.
- Look at the object as if you’re viewing it for the first time. Be curious and notice all that you can about it.
#3: Move and Groove
Pick a song at random to listen to. While listening, move to the music (in whatever way feels appropriate).
This might feel silly, but it works to break the stress response while also focusing your mind on the music (and your movement).
#4: Use Your Senses
Using your senses is a great way to reset your mind when stressed (and allow it to relax). Set a timer for 3-5 minutes (and turn off all electronics), and then:
- Identify 5 things that you see. For each one, linger on it and pay close attention to each item.
- Next identify 4 sounds (listen intently to each one for a moment before moving on).
- Then identify 3 smells (or as many as you can). Again, take your time and notice each distinct smell separately.
- Next touch two things (separately) and pay close attention to what you feel for each item. Take your time.
- Finally, taste one thing and pay special attention to both the physical sensations and the flavor.
I highly recommend doing this outdoors.
#5: Let Your Mind Wander (On Purpose)
Set a timer for 5 minutes (or 10 minutes if you can swing it). Turn off all electronics and go somewhere relaxing (and where you won’t be interrupted). And bring a pen and journal with you.
Breathe slowly in and out through your nose a couple of times, focusing on how it feels. Then allow your mind to roam free. It might start to spin with a bunch of thoughts. Let it! Or it might feel blank. That’s okay too.
Whenever you notice something important, write it down in your journal quickly. And then get back to allowing your mind to wander. I recommend doing this daily for a couple of days if your mind feels especially cluttered.
Relaxing your mind is necessary – for your mental health and productivity levels. So be sure that you work to change your mentality around it and use the exercises outlined above. You’ll feel and perform better as a result.
And to go even further, don’t forget to download 5-Minute Stress Solutions. This must-have resource contains 8 proven mindset and stress management strategies that can be done in 5 minutes or less.