‘Learning to relax can be life-changing’: how to find your comfort zone

By Moya Sarner

How do you like to kick back, chill out and really relax? This sounds as if it should be a simple question. But I can’t be alone in having spent several evenings over the past couple of weeks slumped on the sofa, “watching TV” while my eyes flicker across Twitter and Facebook, as well as five different WhatsApp groups on my phone.

Relaxing is increasingly difficult in our always-on digital world. This first struck me a couple of years ago when I had to stop exercising after an injury. Exercise had always been my go-to “me-time” activity, and without it I felt totally lost. I recently started again, but having only one means to de-stress now feels very limited and I am not even sure it counts as relaxing – it is quite hard work, and inherently competitive. When I find myself at home with a free evening, I often have no idea what to do and inevitably end up staring emptily at one screen or another for hours, before stumbling off to bed, wondering where the time has gone.

This seems to be a common problem. The actor Diane Keaton told More magazine: “I wouldn’t know what to do with a week off,” while the musician Gwen Stefani told Stylist that whenever she has any downtime, she feels as if she is “panicking a bit or trying to plan the next thing”. Elon Musk, when asked what he usually does after work, said: “Usually work more” – which does not seem to be turning out well for him.

The need for some simple source of relaxation can be seen in the initial surge in popularity of the adult colouring book, as well as last year’s 13.3% increase in sales of books providing spiritual guidance on how to live in a hectic world, and the mindfulness “mega trend” seen in Headspace, the meditation app that has been downloaded more than 15m times. Those of us who spent our money on these products were presumably searching for answers to some of the same questions – and many of us are still looking. The bottom has now dropped out of the colouring book market, with Forbes declaring it “dead” in May, and, in June last year, Headspace laid off 13 staff members.

According to a report by Ofcom this summer: “Most people in the UK are dependent on their digital devices and need a constant connection to the internet.” It found that 78% of us now own a smartphone – rising to 95% of 16- to 24-year-olds. We check these phones on average every 12 minutes of our waking lives, with 54% of us feeling that the devices interrupt our conversations with friends and family, and 43% of us feeling that we spend too much time online. We can’t relax with them, and we don’t know how to relax without them. Seven in 10 of us never turn them off.

The clinical psychologist Rachel Andrew says she sees the problem every day in her consulting room, and it is getting worse. “I’ve noticed a rise in my practice, certainly over the last three to five years, of people finding it increasingly difficult to switch off and relax. And it’s across the lifespan, from age 12 to 70,” she says. The same issues come up again and again: technology, phones, work emails and social media.

Kicking back in front of one screen or another does have its place, says Andrew – but it depends how you do it. “Sometimes people describe not being engaged in what they’re looking at – totally zoning out, not knowing what they’ve done for the last half-hour,” she says. “You can view this almost as dissociation, periods of time when your mind is so exhausted and overwhelmed it takes itself out of the situation. That’s unlikely to be nourishing in any way.” Maybe that is why, after I have spent an evening staring emptily at Twitter, or dropping off in front of the TV – less Netflix and chill, more Netflix and nap – I wake up feeling as if I have eaten a load of junk food. I have confused feeling brain-dead with feeling relaxed.

The psychoanalyst David Morgan, of the Institute of Psychoanalysis, believes that for many of us this deadening retreat to our screens is both a reason for and a consequence of the fact that we no longer know how to relax and enjoy ourselves. Our screens and what we use them for are all techniques of distraction, he says. “People have got so used to looking for distraction that they actually cannot stand an evening with themselves. It is a way of not seeing oneself, because to have insight into oneself requires mental space, and all these distraction techniques are used as a way of avoiding getting close to the self.”

Some of her patients, Andrew explains, simply never get around to thinking about how they want to spend their time. “People say they are so busy doing the ‘shoulds’,” she says – whether that is working, caring for family or being a part of demanding friendships – that by the time an evening or weekend comes around when they might do what they want, there is no energy or motivation left for anything but “flopping out”. She adds: “That’s a difficulty – because how is life enjoyable or satisfying in the long term if you’re only doing what you should do the whole time?”

For others, the notion of being in touch with their own needs and desires is totally alien, says Andrew. People who grew up in a family environment that centred around the needs of a sibling or a parent might have spent their whole lives never being asked about what they wanted to do. “It might genuinely be something they’ve never considered before,” she says. For those people, identifying something they might find enjoyably relaxing, and pursuing it, can be a huge, life-changing shift. “It can be quite dramatic.”

Another problem is that it can be tricky to untangle our own wishes from those of the people around us, says Nina Grunfeld, the founder of Life Clubs, an organisation that aims to help people live more fulfilling lives. It can take a lot of effort to discover where your enjoyment ends and your partner’s begins. “When my husband and I were young,” she says, “we went to Rome on holiday, and he wanted to go to every church, every restaurant, every everything. And I got home completely shattered. It was only after coming to know myself, after thinking about my life without him and what I like as an individual, that I realised that for me to enjoy a holiday and to come back feeling relaxed and refreshed, I need to read and be still. Now we’ll go on holiday and he goes off to do the churches by himself, but I’m very happy just lying by the beach, pool or fire and reading. It’s a real treat. I might join him for the restaurants, though.”

Speaking to Grunfeld and Andrew, and hearing their advice (see ) on how to identify different occupations that might relax and reinvigorate me, I begin to feel optimistic. I think back to how I liked to pass the time when I was young; the quiet times sitting reading a book, the rowdier times baking with friends. I resolve to make more time to do the adult versions of these things over the next year – then realise I am making excuses. If I could redirect the evenings I am already wasting on screens, that would be a good start.

The fact is, I do already do all those ideal things occasionally, but sometimes it feels as if being in the world is too much, and I need to disappear from it by losing myself in a screen. It is as if I crave that brain-dead feeling, even though I know it isn’t good for me. Having psychoanalytic psychotherapy is helping me to think about the reasons why I might do this – and for Morgan, therapy can be an important pathway out of being stuck in a screen-gazing rut, because it is somewhere a person is encouraged to use his or her mind. “The therapeutic space is the opposite of distraction – it’s concentration,” he says. “When people come into my consulting room, they often tell me it’s the first time they have ever felt they have had a space where they can’t run away from things.”

I have found that not running away from things, but confronting them and reflecting on them, can feel as exhausting as the running itself. It is difficult, disturbing work. But in a room with someone who can listen and help me to make sense of things, it can also be a relief. Morgan tells me: “We have all these various ways of distracting ourselves from the most important fact of life – that we live, and then we die. Having a mind to help you think about things, having a person who can think deeply about things with you, is a way to manage this very frightening fact of life.”

The flip side of that frightening fact is, of course, the realisation that since we don’t have much time on this planet, it is a shame to waste any of it voluntarily making ourselves brain-dead.

Top tips: rediscover the lost art of relaxation

If you are spending time with family or friends over the festive period, Nina Grunfeld recommends assigning each person one hour in which they are in charge of the group’s schedule, when they can choose whichever activity they consider most relaxing. “One of my children might decide we all have to play a video game; another will decide we are all going for a walk; another will make us all bake cakes. That way you all get a bit of ‘me-time’, and you can experience someone else’s – and it’s very relaxing not having to make decisions for the whole day,” she says.

Try to remember what you most enjoyed doing as a child, then identify the most important aspect of that activity and find the adult version. Grunfeld says: “It might be that you can’t remember, and you have to ask friends or family, or look at old photo albums. There are normally themes in all of our lives, and if we’re missing those themes as an adult, it’s almost as if we’re not a whole person.” If you loved playing in the sandpit, you might want to try pottery, or if you liked building things, you might want to make bread.

Experiment with looking at the world in a new way. “Allow yourself to explore. Just walk around wherever you are and see what you can find that is completely new. Try to get lost – whenever you get to a turning, ask yourself do you want to go left or right, and see where you end up,” says Grunfeld.

If you have no idea how to start relaxing, look at the science, says Rachel Andrew. “There is a growing body of research to suggest being out in nature is uplifting and nourishing.”