Can’t Relax?

You’re Not Alone

I can still hear my father’s voice as it rang out, “Relax? I hate that word relax!”

He said that to me when I was a teenager, and presumably I had done something that warranted correction. In response, I gave my father the ill-advice, “Dad - relax”. He came back with that statement, and to this day it makes my wife and I chuckle every time we hear the word relax.

In fact, when we are triggered by circumstances, environment or just bad stress management, someone trying to coax us to relax can often go sideways. It takes skill to be the “bigger man or woman” when there is mounting stress in the room (or on the street as the case may be). And it’s not just technique that counts; stress and anxiety shifting require a neurophysiological state in one person strong enough to impact another person.

Your heart rate variability impacts that of others within about 8-12 feet of distance, according to some research. Whether that piques your interest or not, most of us know intuitively and from experience that being around somehow who is dysregulated emotionally us disruptive to us. The same is true of being around someone who is calm under pressure. Which person would you rather be around? The calm one? Is that you?

Unfortunately, it’s a phenomenon of our times – this inability to relax. The nervous system stays so amped-up most of the day (and night), as we remain plugged into our phones, devices, and computers most of which feeds us overwhelming negative messaging via societal and cultural channels.

Interestingly enough, when we feel that anxiety begin to climb – we look for an immediate reward and usually it comes in the form of a distraction. Arguably, there are healthy distractions and unhealthy ones – ranging from exercise and hobbies to drinking and binge-watching Netflix. Of course, the unhealthy distractions, while temporarily offering relief, just end up giving us more anxiety and increasing our inability to relax.

One of the most common distractions are our phones. The research coming out on how our lives – and our brains – are changing with the constant use of “smart” phones is astonishing. In a study of 104 college students, half opened their phones 60 or more times per day. There is some evidence that they reduce memory capacity, divert attention, minimize our ability to map direction, and add, sometimes significantly, to our stress. Not exactly the outcomes we might have wanted from our “helper” devices.

We often refer to our phones as a “device”. This word comes from “defect” based on the Latin “vitium”. And think of what we mean by the word “vice” – usually it’s something that we lean on, a crutch, a prop that holds us up. So, you have to ask yourself honestly, is your phone or iPad or computer a vice that you lean on for distraction in unhealthy ways? Is it a way to avoid person-to-person contact, turn away from deeper conversations, evade emotions that need to be dealt with?

An astonishing nearly 85% of millennials sleep with their smartphone or tablet, which interferes with melatonin production through blue light production. And that says nothing of the electro-magnetic interference coming from having an internet signal pointing toward your brain all night. There’s plenty of evidence now that screen time close to bed reduces sleep quality and leaves many feeling unrefreshed from sleep.

It’s no wonder that millennials report being stress out 20% of their lives. That’s 1 in every 5 minutes or 12 minutes out of every hour of the day. That’s a lot of stress time, and this generation will pay the price for it unless they learn some skills to self-regulate.

On top of that, only 29% of those age 18-33 report getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep compromises the immune system, tweaks the sympathetic (speed up) branch of the nervous system, and reduces cognition, memory, and ability to perform well on demand. Without sleep, you will eventually be compromised and the ultimate repercussion of lack of sleep is the ever-undesirable early death. At the least, inadequate sleep means you are more likely to get sick, be constantly tired, and eventually develop unfavorable conditions such as dementia.

Left to its own devices in today’s world, the nervous system runs rampant in its sympathetic (speed up) tone. Vagal tone is all but forgotten, which is the turning on of the vagus nerve and hence the parasympathetic (slow down) nervous system. If you want to know more about the importance of the vagus nerve, please look into our lessons or the Universal Stress course, which launches February 2018.

In the meantime, let me throw some more ‘stress-tistics’ your way.

  • Americans comprise a tiny percentage (4%) of the world population yet consumes a substantial amount (25%) of the world’s supply of anti-anxiety drugs.
  • As of 2010, 1 in 5 Americans was on a drug to treat anxiety or depression.
  • While these drugs CAN be effective and useful for some, many of us turn to them (or illegal versions or alcohol or tobacco) in our efforts to relax.

The drive for modulating the nervous system (the speed up and slow down branches of the nervous system) is massive and natural. Human beings want to relax; we need to relax. Yet most of us don’t know how.

Well - I’ve got news for you – GOOD news. Relaxation is a skill that can be learned. We truly, in our most natural states, are built for states of deep relaxation and have merely trained ourselves out of this vital, life-giving state. With some attention and practice we can regain it.

More good news is you have 20,000 opportunities to relax EVERY DAY. Each and every day we breathe approximately 20,000 cycles per day, and each breath is a chance to turn on the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve – that runs from the gut through the heart, into the vocal chords and into the face – is like a master regulator for engaging and activating the parasympathetic (slow down) branch of the nervous system. So basically, you have 20,000 chances per day of influencing your anxiety by connecting to your breath alone.  

Some of us have had breath control training through martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, sports or other disciplines. Many of us have never been exposed to the power of breathing awareness and attunement. But the funny things is – we can live our entire lives without EVER thinking about breath. Our brainstem and autonomic nervous system will take care of it for us. But as my wife often says, when we take conscious, deliberate control of our breath it becomes one of the most powerful tools we have in our tool belt for self-regulation of stress and improving well-being.

So try a simple balanced breath: 3-4 seconds in, 3-4 seconds out. Try extending the exhale: 3-4 seconds in and 5-7 seconds out. Try 5 seconds in, hold for 5 seconds, 5 seconds out, hold for 5 seconds. Practice these cycles for 1-3 minutes as you’re increasing your skill level. More importantly, use these skills AS PART of your day to day routine: while driving, standing in line, listening to others, reading emails, sitting in meetings, etc.  You don’t have to isolate yourself to practice. Truly, it’s most effective when you integrate conscious, deliberate breathing into your everyday life.

Let me end here with a few questions.

  • What does it feel like for you to truly relax?
  • Why is it important?
  • Do you believe it is inappropriate to relax in public?
  • Do you associate relaxing with letting down your guard, and therefore being vulnerable?
  • When you are alone or have an opportunity for down time, do you relax then?  
  • What’s your reference point for relaxation?
  • Do you have any memory of being deeply relaxed?  
  • Can you draw on that in this moment?
  • Or as Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings, “I have no memory of this place.”

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