Guest blogger Dr. Heidi Hanna discusses how learning to best use relaxation techniques can help you perform better in business and in life.

In our busy and stressful lives and jobs, sometimes knowing when to take a step back is critical in making better decisions. However, many of us don’t know the most efficient way to do this in the heat of the moment.

Brain scientists have identified two complementary systems in our body that are designed to keep us in balance: the sympathetic (gas pedal) and parasympathetic (brake). When the parasympathetic nervous system is initiated through relaxation, our brain and body release chemicals that are designed to help us calm down and recover from stress.

Dr. Herbert Benson, cardiologist, and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and his colleagues initially found that there were four simple components necessary to initiate the relaxation response.

  • A comfortable position
  • A quiet environment
  • A mental device (word, phrase or sound repeated)
  • A passive attitude

After continued research, however, they discovered that people truly only needed two of the components: a mental device and a passive attitude. Someone could actually be jogging along a busy highway and still elicit the response as long as they were able to maintain their mental focus and return to it when distracting thoughts interfered.

You often hear about the meditative state that runners experience. Runners who claim to be “in the zone” may actually find the rhythmic nature of the running motion and the sounds of their steps hitting the pavement to be quite soothing – as long as they can keep their mind from wandering and getting caught up in past or future concerns.

Similarly, walkers, swimmers, cyclists and other athletes can also find themselves getting in the zone of their physical activity and tuning out all other thoughts. If they can focus their attention on something positive, they can perform even complex tasks while in a calm, clutch state of mind. These active forms of recovery can still help to recharge the brain just as effectively as the more passive techniques that we usually imagine when we hear the word “relaxation.”

So when you’re office-bound, how do you access these forces for better business? Imagine you’ve just come out of a pivotal meeting, and your heart is racing. The group is on a lunch break, and you want to come back to the meeting/to the office still motivated to drive some key recommendations home with a family of new and very selective clients.

The Process

  • Pick a focus word, short phrase or other adage that is rooted in your belief system
  • Sit (or lie down if you are not at work) quietly in a comfortable position
  • Close your eyes
  • Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, neck and head
  • Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase or aphorism of your choosing silently to yourself as you exhale
  • Assume a passive attitude. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come to mind simply say to yourself, “Oh, well,” and gently return to your repetition
  • Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may want to set music or ambient noise to play in the background for the time frame available so that you’re not concerned with, or distracted by, keeping track of time

You should come back centered in a way that allows you to focus on the points that matter most. Practice this technique once or twice daily if you can so that it becomes more of your norm rather than an emergency brake. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner. But when you are faced with a storm, remember that the science behind relaxation can be deployed to drive better decisions and outcomes when it matters most.


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About the Author

As an experienced speaker, Heidi Hanna has been featured at many national and global conferences, including the Fortune Magazine Most Powerful Women in Business Summit, ESPN Women’s Leadership Summit and the Million Dollar Round Table. She is founder and Chief Energy Officer of Synergy, a consulting company providing brain-based health and performance programs for organizations, and the Executive Director of the American Institute of Stress.

Hanna’s publications include The New York Times bestseller The SHARP Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance (Wiley, Feb 2013), Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Stress (Wiley, Jan 2014) and Recharge: 5 Shifts to Energize Your Life (Synergy, 2015). Hanna is a National Board Member for the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, a Fellow with the American Institute of Stress, and she currently serves as editor of their quarterly publication, Contentment. Recently, Hanna created The Beyond Funny Project, a non-profit dedicated to providing resources and education related to the benefits of healthy humor.

Hanna holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Penn State University and holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling.