For those of us who grew up in homes that weren't safe or didn't feel safe, which for the brain is the same thing, the idea of living in a state of calm is almost impossible to imagine. Why is it so hard to feel relaxation at the end of the day? We'll answer this question, explore three evening activities we think will make us calm, but actually don't, and list the most common fears that pop up when we start to relax.
how trauma affects the brain. Why can't we feel calm?
The brain is stuck in the stress response; it is registering "danger" when there is none. When this patterning started in childhood it is called "complex trauma" because the child's emotional, cognitive and social development --feelings, beliefs about him/herself and abilities in the world --are merged with the brain's developing a dominant pattern of reacting to the environment with a stress response.
The stress response --or fight/flight/freeze response--is the primitive brain's problem solving strategy to ensure survival when threatened. This patterning is reflected in our neural pathways, the expression "neurons that fire together, wire together." An example of how that wiring gets formed: a child who is repeatedly home alone at too young an age (too young being defined by the inability to know how to run a home: how to cook, use a phone, problem-solve home related issues) and, therefore, the brain starts to rouse a stress response as it's strategy for safety and problem solving. It stays "on-alert" not being confident about what the possible threats are, and how to master this environment. The brain is learning "home" and "not safe", therefore, go into a stress response and wires those pathways together. (For more study, Dr. Basal Van Der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score does an excellent job of explaining this dynamic and how it gets reflected in self-esteem, personal beliefs and coping strategies.)
Fast forward twenty years and that kid, now an adult, comes home from a long day at work and his/her brain, instead of shifting into "rest mode/relaxation" reves up or stays in "go-mode" or hyperarousal, which feels like anxiety, racing thoughts's, upset stomach, or bodily discomfort. We would like to relax but because the part of our brain in charge of the thought, "I'm home after a long day of work and now let's relax" (the pre-frontal cortex) is, unfortunately, not in charge of the part of the brain, (our limbic brain) that decides whether to stay in a stress response.
The next understandable thought we have is: what can I use to help myself relax?
Here are three things we think will help us relax but actually don't.
While alcohol is a depressant, and wil bring us down out of an anxious, "fight/flight" response. It works on the brain neurotrasmitters that decrease energy levels. It doesn't actually put is in relaxation, rather it sends us into a "freeze" response. The depressive/freeze response is still part of the stress response, it's only the other end of the spectrum. "Instead of fighting or running I'll play dead to get away from the danger." Read more on what alcohol does to the brain.
2. Watching TV
"I'll just sit and relax in front of my favourit show." TVs and computer monitors emit blue light, which stimulates the brain. Blue light, which is morning light, communicates "wake up" to the brain, at the time when it is supposed to be producing melatonin, the sleep-inducing neurotransmitter. We also tend to watch shows that are arousing, and stimulate excitation and fear.
3. Eating sugar
Our 'reward' at the end of the day, while it does stimulate the reward/pleasure center in the brain and makes us feel good, it also give us energy. It causes a spike in our blood-sugar levels, which makes the body release insulin to get rid of all the sugar, which can lead to too much insulin and then there's a drop in blood sugar, which signals to the adrenals that the body is 'threatened' and it releases the stress hormone cortisol. All this while you're trying to sleep! No surprise that the body will come into full wakefulness in between sleep cycles (the 2 AM wake-up) and be challenged to fall back to sleep.
The good news is that it IS possible to train the body to come out of the complex trauma / stress response. See our blogs on calming stress and improving sleep. The bad news is that we're not always comfortable when we do start to relax and will try to unconsciously find reasons to re-arouse the brain into a stress response. (We'll explore why that is in a later blog.) Here is a common conversation I have with clients who are beginning to experiencing the relaxation response from neurofeedback brain training. (Neurofeedback training brings the brain out of the stress response. Watch a video that explains how, titled "What is Neurofeedback".)
Client at the end of a neurofeedback session:
What is this heavy sensation? Am I getting depressed?
No, you’re calming down. That weighty, rested state you are experiencing in your body at the end of the session is relaxation.
But is this OK? Will I still get my work done? Will I still be as productive?
You are used to living from a stress response where your nervous system (brain) is acting from a fight/flight/freeze response. It’s actually the most primitive part of your brain that is in charge—your reptilian brain—and it motivates you to misperceive the environment as one where there is ALWAYS danger present.
Ya, but what’s wrong with always being in go-mode?
Nothing, if it is engaged for short periods of time, (like the amount of time it takes you to get awayfrom a falling brick) but then your body is supposed to go back into a state of relaxation. The flight/fight response is ONLY to be used in short bursts. Like a runner sprinting—a good technique for a short distance—but she’ll never make it to the finish line of a marathon. In the same way, the fight/flight response is only meant for short periods; then we are meant to go back into a state of calm/aware. When we’re in a state of calm alert (not hypervigilent alert) we have access to our entire brain’s resources—and for us creative people this is important. Our spontaneity, sense of openness, sense of will and purpose are not engaged when we are triggered by fight/flight.
So calm-alert is where our creativity comes from?
Yes, that’s why, for example, in the creative offices at Google they have ping pong tables. We are coming to understand that in a state of relaxation is the best place to come up with original ideas.
So why is my brain staying in this anxious state?
Because you are habituated. Your brain, in trying to be efficient—doing the same response over and over again—does not realize that it is NOT being effective. Now is not then. At some point in the past you were in a state of danger, but then your brain became habituated and just responses the same way as in the past.
How do I get my brain to stop this habit?
The first step is understanding that it is not the appropriate or most effective strategy for overcoming life's challenges and meeting our goals. Then we have to look at ourselves holistically and assess what are the activities and attitudes that will help to come out of the stress response and into a state of brain regulation and which are the ones that perpetuate the habit. Then we come up with a realistic and doable strategy for creating the supports.
When the brain is in regulation it is open and calm. And when we are in this state we—our conscious will—are in charge, and not the limbic--reptile brain!