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Can’t Relax? Science Explains—and Helps Solve the Problem

A scientific method for de-stressing.

Key points

  • When people stress about relaxing, they simply cannot let go enough. 
  • Stress, anxiety, and depression, coming on the heels of non-stop pressure to achieve, physically interfere with the body’s relaxation mechanisms.
  • Meditation, yoga, and breathwork have been shown to have powerful effects on the body and the mind.

It happens to high-powered executives, to teachers, to stay-at-home parents. It happens to high school and college kids, even to youngsters in elementary and middle school. It happens to almost all of us. Summer is here. We finally get some time off. We’re going to relax and restore ourselves. But somehow, it doesn’t seem to happen.

What is wrong here? Why can’t we relax?

Just for the fun of it, do a quick web search for “relax.” A Google search came up with 362,000,000 responses. That number, without even looking at the results themselves, tells us two things. First, we are desperate to find ways to unwind; and second, we may be going about it the wrong way.

By now, we all know that our bodies affect our minds and that our minds affect our bodies. In order to stay healthy, we know we must have well-exercised, well-rested, and well-fed bodies; and we know that the same is for mental health and productivity as well. So we work at exercising, work at eating the way we’re supposed to, and work at playing.

What’s wrong with this picture? Physiologically, stress, anxiety and even depression trigger the sympathetic nervous system—home of the famous “fight or flight” mechanism. Scientific research suggests that when we stress about relaxing, or when we demand that our bodies exercise too much (as in training for a race) we simply cannot actually let go enough. You may be having troubles enjoying your time off because you are working too hard at relaxing.

Here’s one example: Think about how youngsters are being taught to learn these days. They are expected to work hard year round. Even play is work. Camp is for honing athletic skills, losing weight, learning to write or make movies—that is, almost anything but just plain fun. So no wonder that by the time they get to college, adolescents are anxious, depressed and stressed out. How do they deal with these feelings? They work hard at what they see as relaxation—like binge drinking. Ask any of these youngsters, and they will tell you they are trying to get drunk because it’s the best way they know to have fun. Just about every client who I have discussed this issue with has said to me, alcohol works really well at stopping feelings of guilt, anxiety and stress—at least temporarily.

What does this mean? First, we live in a world that makes it hard to really unwind. The demands of daily life are intense and never-ending. We have come to equate success with achievement, and achievement with happiness. Furthermore, research has shown that stress, anxiety, and depression, which come on the heels of this kind of non-stop pressure to achieve, physically interfere with the body’s relaxation mechanisms. And of course focusing on relaxation as yet another high-pressure goal (I must relax, I must relax, I must relax) is not going to cut it.

So, we need to think about learning to relax in a different way.

We are biologically programmed to learn and grow from the moment of our birth; yet the structured, formal learning well-meaning parents impose on their little ones often interferes with their love of learning, and also interrupts the natural balance of work and play that we are also pre-programmed with.

I once watched as a friend’s toddler practiced climbing up and down steps under her mother’s careful protection. As my friend and I chatted, the little girl maneuvered up the stairs on hands and knees, came back down sitting on her bottom, and gradually mastered the task of walking and walking back down. Her pleasure at the accomplishment had nothing to do with what she was supposed to be doing, but she seemed to be motivated by an innate desire to master the task she had set for herself.

Daniel Pink (author of several books on motivation) offers research showing that one of the great motivators is the desire for mastery. So even though a desire to rest seems logical, it seems that when we stop pushing so hard, we don’t feel as though we are mastering anything.

So then we feel uncomfortable. When we feel guilty about relaxing, we often mean that we have made so many plans for ourselves that we cannot possibly accomplish them all. Most of us do not read the classic novels or clean up the messy file drawers or take the French lessons that we set as goals for the summer. We get back to work without having lost five pounds or run every day or written all of the thank-you notes.

We haven’t mastered anything, but most especially, we haven’t mastered the art of relaxing.

So if you are looking at your calendar and realizing that summer is speeding by, you haven’t yet started to feel calm, and you’re dreading getting back into your hectic daily life, here are some suggestions. Some of these are traditional ways of relaxing, but the goal here is to use a wish to master the art of relaxation as your motivation for relaxing.

  1. Set yourself the task of learning how to relax. Lowering your heartbeat, calming your spirit, and resting your psyche, brain, and body are not easy or simple jobs. They have to be learned. And your vacation time is the time to start to learn them.
  2. Choose one or two mechanisms for doing this, and pursue them in a structured way throughout your vacation. Meditation, yoga, and breathwork have been shown to have powerful effects on the body and the mind. Make this vacation a time when you begin to learn to do one of them. Take a class, or read a book about them, but make learning one of them a priority.
  3. Or learn something else that has a reputation for calming. Learn to knit (again, there are books, classes, and individual teachers available at most knitting and many crafts shops) or to sew, paint, draw, and cook—something that will motivate you to do something relaxing.
  4. Practice sleeping.
  5. Practice resting.
  6. Practice staring into space.
  7. Assign yourself a certain number of really pleasurable books or television shows or movies to watch on your vacation.
  8. Decide on a certain number of slow, calm bike rides or walks to take while you are not at work, and work to make sure that you take that many, or more.

The point, as you can see, is to set up some goals for relaxing that you can actually accomplish. If you believe you can master these goals, you will be motivated to work towards them. And there’s a good chance that you may actually end your vacation more relaxed than you started it.

Books to look at:

  • Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
  • The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance by Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg
  • 8-Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind. Change Your Life by Victor Davich
  • Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith
  • Relaxation Revolution: The Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing by Herbert Benson and William Proctor
More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
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