What The Sauna Taught Me About Stress

We live like Finns at our house and sauna, which we pronounce sow-na, every week. We sit in the heat and throw water on the rocks (or löyly in Finnish) until we can’t stand it. Then we get out and take a cold shower and repeat the process. Add to that brushing our skin with a coarse-bristled brush, and you may wonder, like I did when I married into this tradition, why we do this on purpose. They say it is the cleanest clean; I say it is the most exhausting relaxation I know.

When I sauna with my daughters, we take turns going out to the shower room. We usually follow the order of youngest to oldest, since I guess the more experienced of us can stand it longer. In last week’s sauna my youngest talked and talked while the steam and heat of the 180 degree (F) room built up inside me.

She sat on the lower bench and kept inching toward the door, but she dragged her feet to go out. At the low level where she sat, she wasn’t too hot. Plus, she liked the conversation, and I did, too. The way our kids open up in sauna surprises us and adds new dimensions of talk to our relationship, so I try not to hurry it.

Meanwhile, my lungs took in the hot air. My pores enlarged. Sweat poured off my face. I needed that cold shower, but I couldn’t just leave her; it would be out of order. Then she stood up and lingered at the door until I couldn’t endure it any more. “I need a shower.” I said.

She looked at me, as if to say, “Why didn’t you say something.” I stepped out to the shower room and stood in the cold stream of water. The heat dissipated.

The irony is that this ritualized relaxation taught me how I hold my stress. It builds and builds and builds like the heat in my body during sauna. And then, inevitably, some other circumstance keeps me in that place until I feel I’m going to burst. Now that I understand the analogy, the next lesson is how I get to the shower sooner.

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