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In the Brave New World of Relaxation, You Have 1 Million Ways to Chill Out

Breathwork. Hypnosis. Energy patches. The ubiquitous CBD. All these solutions to anxiety are enough to make your head spin even more

In these complicated times, one thing is abundantly clear: People are stressed the fuck out. In fact, as of March, nearly 40 percent of Americans reported feeling more stress in 2018 than they did in 2017. To name just a few of the reasons why:

  • Student loan debt
  • Rent hikes
  • Health-care costs
  • Stock-market volatility
  • Climate change
  • Mass shootings
  • Perpetually unbalanced work/life balance
  • Children being caged at the border
  • The nationalist nightmare that is the Trump administration more generally
  • Voter suppression
  • The ever-insecure gig economy
  • The ever-insecure regular economy
  • Aging
  • Heartbreak
  • Loneliness
  • Unopened emails
  • Unread texts
  • Unrelenting shit news in your feed (for all the reasons above)

Yeah, it’s a lot.

Worse yet, whatever the source of your stress, it’s definitely hurting your health as it weakens your immune system and fucks with your heart (and that’s just for starters). Basically then, reports that stress levels are at an all-time high indicate a public-health crisis that requires a massive re-evaluation in terms of how we relax.

To find some chill of my own among this stressed-out maelstrom, I accessed new levels of relaxation in 2018. On the extreme side of things, I strapped myself into a lymphatic massage suit that allegedly forced all the nasty shit from my lymphs, thereby (again, allegedly) preventing acne, brain fog and “slugging bowel function.” (I think it kinda worked?). Speaking of my bowels, I also had my asshole steamed (alongside my boyfriend), which both left my anus spotless and lulled me into a deep state of tranquility.

But I found lots of relaxation value in smaller, quieter moments, too. Namely: I went to dozens of Yin yoga classes, where I practiced surrendering instead of pushing; I ate psilocybin mushrooms in beautiful, natural spaces at least 10 times; I clutched a bunch of different crystals on a bunch of different occasions; and I smoked a ton of weed too often to count. In the meantime, I got hypnotized over Skype three times, completed the Artist’s Way program for creative rehabilitation twice and visited an intuitive reader once.

Still, like any exploration, my quest for greater (and more innovative) chill is far from complete. Or better put, there’s far more that I could be doing to bring improved equilibrium and calm to my life. Also, of course, what works for me might not work for everyone else. And vice versa. Thus, over the last few weeks, I’ve gone on a different kind of journey — interviewing people on a similar pursuit of better relaxation to see what I’m missing as well as to learn how they’re navigating the ever-more-stressful world we live in.

It did dawn on me, though, that true relaxation starts at home. And with me, that begins with my parents (whom I live with once again), and my dad, Jeff Finster, in particular. I don’t why it took so long, but if I learned one thing in 2018, it’s that he knows how to relax better than I thought. So while he’s definitely 100 percent unfamiliar with the term “self-care,” his own relaxation strategies have proven to be multifaceted. He already told me why he can’t live without a bubble bath. But his lifelong run as a hobby enthusiast — working on dozens of die-cast models of cars and bikes as well as fabricating his own custom parts using metal, rubber and paint — is another part of his trusted relaxation regimen.

I Build Die-Cast Models to De-Stress

Finster: Modeling relaxes me because I don’t think of anything else besides modeling when I’m doing it, you know? All I’m thinking about is the actual model. It’s like, I put everything else out of my head. For whatever reason, I don’t know. You can’t stay all nutted up 24/7. It just isn’t good for you. Sometimes you just need to relax. I mean, I turn into a dick when I’m all tense, so it’s good for me to relax. I’m nicer.

I’ve used it a lot over the years as a diversion. For example, when I was drinking a lot and doing a lot of dope in the 1980s, I’d model instead of doing that because I thought I had a problem and wanted to stay away from it. In that way, it was a rehabilitator as well.

A weird thing is that I’m not working a lot or making money, I feel like I’m not worthy of being able to just, you know, quote-unquote “screw around.” Like I feel like I’m lesser of a person or something. I don’t know what it is. I feel like I’m not worthy to be able to sit and do something I like because I’m not taking care of quote-unquote “business.” That’s why I never used to make time for models unless I was really satisfied with work, but someone close to me eventually pointed out that was silly, which I appreciated. I think it’s just one of my own head trips.

Plus, my perspective on something might change from when I start a model to when I finish because I’ve actually loosened up and figured out how I really feel.

I Treat Patients With Hypnosis

While models work for my dad, others need help finding their own moment(s) of zen. That’s ostensibly what Andrea Iya Young, a Montreal-based hypnotherapist who conducts sessions both in person and on FaceTime and Skype, does. To get there, though, she first attempts to help you work through some of the shit that’s fueling your inner turmoil and the stress and anxiety that that shit often breeds.

Young: Through regression therapy, we can go back and re-experience memories, especially emotions related to trauma, guilt or shame that may still be subconsciously impacting your relationships and your life. By re-experiencing these memories, we can restore the innocence that got bruised by the traumatic experience. So when I’m in-person with a client and they’re in a hypnotic state, I say, “Feel the anxiety that you’ve been feeling in your chest these past few weeks. Allow that feeling to be really present for a moment, and allow the body to take you back to the first time you can remember feeling that feeling of anxiety in your chest cavity.”

Once you bring awareness to that sensation in the fascia and the nervous system, you can go back to when you were first sensitized into feeling that specific kind of anxiety, panic or discomfort. Sometimes that means high school; sometimes it means really, really young.

Any time you’ve been humiliated, any time you’ve been embarrassed or any time you felt like you’ve disappointed someone, it can cause a neural pathway that repeats itself, year after year, moment after moment, whenever you’re in a similar situation. If you’re a man who got made fun of for liking Barbies as a child, that exact same neural pathway is activated every time you feel like your masculinity is threatened, and you’re going to have that exact same kind of discomfort in your nervous system. If you don’t deal with it, you’re reinforcing that neural pathway and bad feeling, which might feel like a panic attack, anxiety or self-hatred.

We have to find our destiny and our idea of fulfillment and success from within, but the thing is, people aren’t finding it from within right now. They’re constantly looking outward, and things are changing so quickly that I think people are having a really hard time integrating. They don’t know that it’s okay to be who they are and that they’re allowed to love themselves.

On the flip side, you get this aggressive, false sense of self-love by people on the internet, but I think they’re actually desperately looking for reinforcement. I have no judgment on that, but the dopamine addiction of social media isn’t a genuine positive reinforcement. If anything, everyone intuitively knows that the texture of social media is, “Holy shit, I’ve been looking at my phone too long, and now I somehow just feel a sense of yuckiness.”

Still, people are extremely addicted to social media and the dopamine blast of pleasure it gives them when they post a million selfies in an hour. That gives them their sense of worthiness and reinforces their value. They’re in this worthiness-shame cycle where they don’t know where their value comes from, but it’s definitely not coming from within.

Through hypnosis, though, I get them back to a place where I can reinforce to them that every being — whether human, plant, animal or insect — is innately worthy of being alive and fulfilling their destiny as they themselves understand it. Whatever that might be.

I Do Breathwork — and Explore My Subconscious Programming

Sometimes, too, it just helps to breathe. Michael Stone is certainly a proponent of better breathing. A breathwork instructor in L.A., he aims to do through your lungs what Young attempts to do via hypnosis — tapping into your subconscious in hopes of re-arranging your perspective on the things that have long blocked sustainable happiness.

Stone: The most common question I get about breathwork is, “How does it work?” Up until about 15 years ago, science really didn’t know. But with the latest neuroscience, it’s much clearer. Basically, we have this network in our brain called the default mode network, or DMN, that wasn’t discovered until recently. The DMN is kind of the orchestra conductor of your brain. It’s responsible for deciding which of the signals from the various parts of your brain will be suppressed and which will be more prevalent. This includes the parts of your brain that control your emotions and your memory.

The DMN can be quieted in various ways — one of which is breathwork. And when it’s deactivated, you can get access to suppressed emotions and memories more easily so they’re available for processing and release.

Stone himself comes from a scientific background. In fact, he was a chemical engineer before he changed career paths.

Stone: About 14 years ago, I went to Peru with a friend. While we were down there, a local shaman asked us if we wanted to do a religious ceremony with him. We both said, “Why not?” and ended up drinking a liquid that turned out to be ayahuasca. I had this unbelievable connection to the universe that I’d never felt before. I’d always felt, without understanding why, that I was on my own in life and that I had to continually protect myself to stay safe. My ayahuasca experience was the first time I experienced the universe as a safe space, which was incredibly profound.

When I got back from Peru, my science brain was like, “If I can have that kind of experience using a substance, the receptors must be there in my brain. And so, there must be a way to have that experience without using a substance.” That’s ultimately what brought me to breathwork. I tried out Holotropic Breathwork, which was developed by Dr. Stan Grof based on his experiences with LSD psychotherapy, and found that I was able to have similar experiences as I had with ayahuasca.

During these breathwork sessions, the participant lies down and breathes deeper and faster to a specific type of music and “surrenders to the process” — letting whatever wants to happen, happen. For me, the results happen on multiple levels. You start to get insights into what’s holding you back in life — how your subconscious programming is getting in your way; you get downloads with answers to issues you’ve been wrestling with in your mind. You’re able to look at things from a different, more empowering perspective, and when you change your perspective, everything in your world can shift.

One of the major shifts that I’ve had is the ability to have a successful relationship. Ever since I was a teenager, one of my goals in life has been to have a successful relationship with a woman. But I was constantly having relationships that would dramatically fall apart. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t make them work. I’d always been successful in business and other things, but in relationships, it was a complete disaster.

In a series of breathwork sessions, I deeply explored my subconscious programming about my story of the world being an unsafe place that had originally come up during my ayahuasca experience in Peru, and I finally got to the bottom of where it had come from: Both of my parents were Nazi Germany escapees. I’d grown up with the cultural imprint from my parents that the world was an unsafe place. They’d been living in their country for several hundred years, and then, one day, they had to run for their lives. As a result, I grew up in an environment of constant, “You can’t trust anybody. You have to watch out for yourself. You never know when the world is going to turn on you.”

Even though I didn’t remember all of that consciously, it was still unconsciously running my life, and I started to see that if you’re unconsciously programmed to believe that the world is an unsafe place, it isn’t possible to have a successful relationship, because you’ll never completely trust the other person. Therefore, you can’t allow yourself to be vulnerable and really “drop in” fully.

Once I brought that to consciousness and was able to understand that this was my programming, not my own belief, I could allow myself to get out of my own way and have a successful relationship. Now I’ve been with this amazing woman for seven years. It’s just a mind-blowing relationship, and it’s continuing to grow and blossom every day. And it’s all because of the insights that I got out of my breathwork experiences.

Now, admittedly, a certain percentage of the population doesn’t want to go there. They’re happy living their life the way it is, just looking at the outside world and feeling like they have no control. They feel that things happen to them and push them left, and push them right. Breathwork then is for those people who want to go underneath that and really take control of their lives. I call it a modality of radical self-empowerment, because you start to see that you’re not a victim of your environment, that you have more control over your environment than you think by accessing this inner-intelligence where you can shift your perspective and your world.

Dont Just Smoke It. Fight for Legalization

While stress feels like a universal part of the American experience, the amount and severity of stress someone experiences is relative to their race, gender, class and other identities. For example, minority stress theory says that queer people experience more stress than straight people. And according to the American Psychological Association, “the role of social and biological stress on health suggests a link between socioeconomic status and ethnic disparities in stress and health.” Another study found that “African Americans and Latinos were more likely to have higher levels of chronic stress.”

There’s also a discrepancy among stress relief. That is, while those with means can seek out ayahuasca and other psychedelic plant medicine, those without — usually the very people who first discovered the healing powers of these plants — are relegated to being nothing more than paid guides. Moreover, there’s no trickle-down effect, and the drugs mainly remain available to tech bros who trip on psychedelics in order to figure out new ways of restructuring human habit for profit as opposed to vulnerable populations (e.g. migrants and refugees).

Paula Graciela Kahn, a migrant justice and drug policy activist and co-founder of Cosmovisiones Ancestrales, an organization that addresses the environmental impact of the globalization of psychedelic plant medicine, is attempting to close this gap. She believes those of us who have enjoyed the healing benefits of drugs should stand in solidarity with these vulnerable populations and recognize the usefulness of their increased access in regards to public health, especially as we try to push ourselves forward into ways of coexisting peacefully.

Kahn: Marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms and the coca leaf are all psychoactive plant fungi that mediate social relationships and relationships to the spirit world, and provide significant forms of healing and preventative health for people. In fact, psilocybin medicine is being researched right now to treat treatment-resistant depression and treatment-resistant anxiety. Some studies also show it helps reset the serotonin receptor. The psilocybin helps a lot with OCD and obsessive thoughts as well.

Unfortunately, though, those who have historically been afforded more privilege in society seem to now have the most access to psychoactive medicine that’s been prohibited for generations. This is mainly the case because they have the economic ability to travel to certain parts of the world to consume it — and to consume it in a way that’s more extractive than it is reciprocal.

In short, I feel like it’s the responsibility of individuals who have been activated or relaxed by plant medicine to share the responsibility of ensuring that people who are the first targets of state violence and who have inherited generations of systemic oppression should be the first in line to access healing psychoactive plant and fungi medicine.

The ideal populations for this are people who are incarcerated, people in migrant concentration camps, people forced to migrate and people who find themselves as armed for whatever reason — for example, young people who were recruited into gangs at a very young age. Essentially, people who have experienced either extreme urban or rural poverty and/or witnessed violent atrocities of some kind.

To me, creating these spaces for them is a public-health issue, because there’s a disproportionate amount of chronic disease in communities that have experienced chronic stress and PTSD. Access to this medicine then would be a form of reparations — like, “We have to have access to the original preventative medicine and the synthesized substances, because it’s going to allow us to free ourselves and free our communities from the disease and illness we’ve been infected with through multiple generations of extreme oppression.”

There are certain substances, such as MDMA or ketamine, that allow you to revisit and process certain experiences. I began self-medicating when I was 14 years old. It helped me embody freedom at a time when I was experiencing sexual violence in a way that I had no one to talk about. Being able to self-medicate at raves and experience freedom through dance and music has been a life-changing and lifesaving experience. I want to make sure other people have access to those collective experiences that are equipped for them to be able to transcend painful experiences, even if they don’t want to talk about them.

The Real Deal About CBD and Wellness Tonics

In the meantime, we have reached peak CBD — especially in L.A. and other cities and states where cannabis is legal (and among the very Coastal, tech set elite that Kahn would like to be more active in helping give back to the people who gave them psychedelics). The botanical anti-stressor is, without exaggeration, in almost everything now — from tinctures to bubble bath. Not to mention, tons of coffee shops and health-food-exlir bars offer CBD extras, normalizing cannabis in an incredibly bougie way one stressful morning at a time.

Spilling your soul about your stressors to a bartender? Depressing! Laying it out to dry for a holistic, botanical barista? Hot!

I spoke to one such barista at Moon Juice, the legendary grab-and-go chain by health-food cult figure Amanda Chantal Bacon, about how she views herself as much as a primary care physician as purveyor of wellness tonics.

Unnamed Moon Juice Barista: Just about every person who walks in is looking for some sort of instant cure-all to their woes. Sometimes it can be heartbreaking to see how strongly people rely on their money to cure them. It’s not cheap to be fully engrossed in the wellness industry, and I have clients who sometimes pop in two to three times a day because they need “some more greens” or “more dust.” We have people who spend more than $2,000 a month at our shops and swear it’s helping them combat stress. I sort of believe them.

The specific needs of our customers are pretty across the board. In general, though, people are most open about their emotional instabilities based on the stress from their jobs, breakups and hormones. Other people have a bunch of shit going on, and they’ll talk to me for 45 minutes at a time. I have a client who comes in several times a week, who’s been going through a nightmare situation trying to get permanent residency after working in the U.S. for the last 15 years. She always has an eye-opening, stress-inducing story to tell me about the immigration office, or how she’s not able to get paid right now because she doesn’t have a social security number. I always fix her up something nice that’s high in adaptogenic power and mood-elevating herbs. CBD is usually a big part of her orders as well.

CBD is very popular — we had a whole summer menu based around it. We get a lot of schmucky dudes in, though, who come in with their girlfriends or business partners and the first question they ask is, “But do you carry CBD?”

We had another customer in this week who walks around with a staff — like a wooden fucking stick — and prays over all of his smoothies. He’s got white dude dreads and cosigns on to everything anyone has to say about anything. He’ll hang out at the counter for at least a half hour, too. He wants so much out of whoever’s helping him, but he ends up getting very basic smoothies, which I find even more hilarious.

We have another regular who I love to talk to because he’s always on one — busy and getting shit done. He tells me I cure him of “ailments” like sinus infections he’s not even sure he has. He drinks this turmeric-ashwagandha tonic almost every day after he smokes two cigarettes and drinks two cups of coffee, which I find so endearing and hysterical. I guess it’s about balance.

Energy Patches Work for Me. No, Really

Balance is what Body Vibes, a line of frequency stickers described as “energetic nutrition,” is all about. Created by Leslie Kritzer, co-founder of Skin Worship, a boutique skincare destination and skincare line out of Beverly Hills, Body Vibes are small dermal patches that stick onto your chest, shoulder or arm. They’re meant to balance energetic frequencies in particular parts of the body and come in formulations such as “anti-anxiety,” “focus,” “energy” and “at the beach.”

Kritzer: My partner Madison and I work in skincare, and we hear complaints from clients all day long about lifestyle issues. Whether they’re not sleeping enough, they have anxiety, they’re stressed, they have an inability to focus, they’re not feeling good about themselves or they’re going through a breakup — something is always going on that ultimately affects their skin and their health. We felt the only way to really help them and have sustainable results for their skin and their well-being was to treat them in a much more holistic manner.

As such, we started using biomats, which are amethyst-embedded infrared mats that clients lay on and that really relax them in a short period of time. From there, we started using energy crystal grids. We started to bring in reiki. We had different healers come through.

Today, we do all different kinds of things to help the body, mind and spirit relax within a session because that’s when you’re gonna be the most receptive to any treatment — when you’re completely and fully relaxed.

I got interested in energy medicine when my husband had rheumatoid arthritis. He still has it, but now he’s in remission. When he had a very, very bad flare-up, though, he was prescribed a bioenergy patch from his naturopath for pain. When he got home, I asked him, “What are these, babe?”

He said, “I guess they’re some type of frequency patch.”

I said, “A frequency patch?” I’d never heard of anything like it.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he responded. He’s a New Yorker. So he was just like, “Whatev. I’m putting it on. If it helps, it helps.”

Slowly but surely he started gaining strength and he started looking more like himself. His immune system was no longer being suppressed by Vicodin and all the pain killers he was on, which drove me to investigate this technology further. I found the engineer behind these frequency stickers and stalked him. I wanted to know everything I could about them, and if he had them for anxiety. It turned out he did. In fact, he had them for all these different kinds of ailments.

They promote the body’s natural ability to heal itself by prompting the body to pick up different energy signals that it understands because it’s been compressed into the same format in the sticker that you will find traveling down the nerve pathways in your body. They’re also able to provide a bio-feedback loop as well, because they remind people that they’re trying to relax. They start a conversation not only with your body through frequencies, but through your mind and the feedback of, “I’m gonna be calm today. I’m setting this intention for myself.”

Still, I was disappointed when first I started using the patches for anxiety because my experience wasn’t as immediately transformational as my husband’s. I have severe anxiety and have tried everything, so I thought it was just another thing that didn’t work. But within a few days, I started noticing small shifts. I wasn’t as aggressive or angry in traffic. I was like, “Wow, who is this?” Usually, I’m really, really tense, but I felt like I was in the flow. All of a sudden, I felt more responsible for my own space and how I felt.

The people around me, too, noticed how much more relaxed I was. I’ve taken Ativan and SSRIs and never had as many people noticing my calm. I’m not gonna say I don’t take Xanax in emergency situations, because I still do — when my anxiety is at a 10, I take that beautiful Xanax and bam, it takes me down to a three in 20 minutes. But the Body Vibes designed for anxiety helps me not get to a ten — or at least not as often. There’s not a big physical change either. You’re never like, “Oh my God, I’m really sedated.” There’s just a sense of presence and being there that doesn’t feel like you’re a maniac trying to get out of your body.

What, though, if true relaxation isn’t any of this? Or least can’t be found in a store-bought version based on science that’s often either disputed or nascent. What if it’s as simple as standing on your own two feet and moving around? Or choosing to pursue the things, like with my dad, that you’re passionate about or that bring you innate joy in large part because they transport you to a completely different place, far removed from the things that are worrying you at that given moment?

I Walk. A Lot. And Super-Early

The small things — e.g., walking, cooking, literally smelling the roses — are certainly more than enough for Ruth Gebreyesus, a writer who moved to Northern California in middle school after growing up abroad.

Gebreyesus: I’m so grateful when I can get in a long walk. In fact, I can walk for hours. It’s one of the few activities that lets me be in my head in a productive or dreamy way, but present in my environment at the same time. I used to love sleeping, too — well, oversleeping really. But lately I’m an early riser, and I’m trying to find joy in a more efficient, structured sleep schedule. I also love eating colorful fruits and vegetables and the different fruits the seasons bring. I’m so grateful for all the citrus, winter squash and persimmons right now. They say California doesn’t have seasons, but I’m lucky enough to know otherwise.

I’d be lying, though, if I said knew what true relaxation really is. I think it looks different for everyone. What is true of this country, however, is that everything either costs time or money. And the problem is that many of the people who could use body and mind care are short on both. On that count, there’s a lot that needs to happen to widen the access to relaxation — the sort you can buy into, and the sort that you can practice.

There’s also an aggressive language around body and mind care that’s strange. For instance, I visited the high-end health-food store Erewhon for the first time recently and joked that I was reporting live from the frontlines while filming a series of potions (aka juices) in vintage apothecary bottles, one of which was labelled “Germ Warfare.” It felt so militant — the war against germs. Being that we’re constantly surrounded by microbes and pollutants, waging that war doesn’t seem earnest or useful to me.

I don’t know, weaponizing self-care just seems depressing. I love taking care of myself, and I do my best to practice different forms of body and mind care daily. But many of those forms don’t involve buying anything or require a zealot-like energy against the world around me.