Clients come into our office all the time saying that they feel chronically stressed, overwhelmed and burnt out yet do not know how to relax. This feels foolish to them because, “Who doesn’t know how to relax?” (their words, not ours). In reality, most people do not know how to relax unless they practice it because, believe it or not, relaxation is a skill and not as natural a muscle as we believe. Don’t believe it? Let’s talk some more about our relaxation response system.
How Our Evolution Dictates Our Responses
Imagine that you are living 90,000 years ago. Your dwelling is quite primal (perhaps a cave or temporary structure), you live with a group of others and must provide everything for yourselves, including shelter and food. You have the knowledge and rudimentary tools to be able to hunt some large game (even a woolly mammoth!) and build fire but you are regularly exposed to the elements and there are predators (animals and other humans), disease and illness, and daily worry about food. This life, though it seems far removed from where we live today, is still built into our genetics and response circuitry. That feeling of anticipation and worry you get when coming up to a big presentation at work or a speech is linked to the same feelings that primitive you would have had as you navigated the basics of survival.
Primitive Responses to Stress and Anxiety
Our response systems were made to respond to short-term stressors that threaten our very survival. A predator is chasing us- our heart beats, our digestive system temporarily shuts down, and we go into fight or flight as our senses sharpen and we navigate the threat until it is gone. How long does that take? A few minutes?
Modern Responses to Stress and Anxiety
Now imagine laying in bed worrying about… Everything. And going into the next day worrying about… Everything. And on and on it goes. How long does that last? Days? Weeks? Months? Our systems in today’s world are responding long-term to something that is not even real.
Unfortunately, our systems are not designed to be in chronic stress mode. We are designed to assess a threat, ready to respond, take action on response, and then settle. Yet our modern worries and stressors seem to promote a very different response: We assess an often faulty threat (fear of disapproval, failure, bills that we can still pay), are ready to respond and… Then we wait. And wait. And wait. We are waiting because there actually is no threat and, therefore, no action to take. This also means that there is no ending to our suffering because there is no natural conclusion to the threat response.
Modern Threats to Our Relaxation and Stress Responses
Basically, anything and everything can be a threat to our relaxation, it all depends on our perspective and interpretation. Some people will lay awake at night worrying about how their coworker interpreted their last email, whereas others would not care about this but would be in a heightened state of stress because they are single and lonely and wondering when/if they will find a partner. In other words, stress is in the eye of the beholder. We may not all be responding to the same things, but we all have our things that we carry worry and stress about and, for most people, these are not short-term threats that come and go.
They are long-term stressors like
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of disapproval
- Fear of failure
- Specific phobias
- Financial insecurity
- Relationship insecurity
- Family of origin challenges
- Parenting worries
- High performance/achievement
- External comparison
Don’t see your particular brand of stress on here? Our apologies, but rest assured that whatever you are worried about others are too even if it did not make our curated list. These are modern stressors that look very different from securing our next meal, avoiding contact with a predator, or fixing a broken shelter. While these stressors may have had our hearts racing quicker, these modern stressors have our hearts mildly pounding for a lot longer which is, ultimately, more damaging. Add in addiction and/or mental health challenges to the mix, and this compounds the detrimental impact of chronic stress and takes the person further away from being able to successfully and regularly relax.
Are you starting to see the problem with relaxing? We have been programmed through a variety of factors (too many to get into here, but societal expectations, modern living, instant gratification, and the quickness of technology are just a few) to be in a fairly constant level of stress and anticipation, which drains our system and does not give our relaxation system much time to practice and function. What happens to you when you go a while without doing something? You become rusty.
The Good (Even Great!) News About Relaxation and Stress Management
Even though our relaxation response system may be underutilized, the great news is that it is still there and ready for action! Relaxing is not like learning to fly; we all have the internal infrastructure and mechanisms to do it (unlike flying); we just may not be accessing or strengthening them. In this way, our relaxation response system is more like a muscle that we do not do much with but if we consciously decide, we can start to build strength which improves functioning.
How do we get to the mental gym and build that relaxation muscle?
We can do this in a number of different ways, including:
- Breathing exercises
- Vagus nerve stimulation
- Quiet reflection
- Taking time for ourselves
- Slowing down
- Engaging in joyful activities
- Reducing exposure to stressors
- Changing our perspective
- Addressing stressors that we can
Some of these tools may be more appealing and accessible to you than others.
Here are some tips to get you started:
- Pick one change to implement
- Be realistic with it (ideally 5 minutes or less/day)
- Be consistent
- When you’re ready, add another tool
Stay tuned for our next article on the specifics of vagus nerve stimulation and how that can open up a multitude of easy, quick tools to promote relaxation.
Looking for additional free resources to support your growth? We have those too!
Sana Psychological is a collective of therapists in Calgary and Airdrie who can help with a number of challenges that come up when people struggle to relax, including anger management counselling, codependency counselling, anxiety counselling, eating disorder therapist, trauma counselling, and depression counselling.
We provide some of the best psychological services Calgary and are happy to support your health and wellbeing.
Want to speak to a professional? Contact us; We would love to hear from you.