Why is it so difficult to relax? How to Calm Down Your Stress Response

Posted by Natalie Baker, LMHC on Nov 1, 2016


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. Bessal 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.)

Related: Watch Bessel Van Der Kolk on YouTube on How to Work with the Traumatized Brain

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.

1.  Alcohol  

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 favorite show."  TV's, computer monitors and mobile phones 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  

cake-pop.jpegOur '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.  

What Are Some Good Ways To De-stress?

The good news is that it IS possible to train the body to come out of the stress response.  In the same way we can train our bodies through physical exercise we can rewire our brains through new brain-changing practices.  As we age the brain becomes inflexible in that it relies too heavily on habitual reactivity and not enough on collecting real-time data to inform emotional decisions.  What we experience is a pattern of negative moods that don't shift with our shifting experience.  

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Exercise

Let's start with the most effective way to destress in 30 minutes.  Exercise.  The research has proven, hands down, cardiovascular exercise, and even walks in nature, bring the brain out of the state of anxiety, the fight/flight reaction and also the depressive or hopeless reaction, also know as the freeze response.  Not only does it have an immediate response, it also significantly contributes to improved sleep, particularly for middle-aged and elderly adults

Foods for De-stressing

There are foods that heighten our stress response and foods that help us switch to relaxation.  Foods that help us switch to brain regulation and relaxation:

  • Foods high in magnesium like spinach, leafy greens and salmon.  Magnesium is an important element for regulating stress.healthfood
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fatty fish such as salmon and sardines; nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, pistachios, walnuts, and almonds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce surges of stress hormones 
  • Foods high in vitamin C like broccoli, kiwis, papaya, red peppers, green leafy vegetables such as kale and parsley.
  • Chamomile is popular for its easy availability and wide range of healing properties. It is often used to relieve stress-induced symptoms such as insomnia and gastrointestinal disorders.
  • Mint is commonly used to relieve stress and induce calmness. 

Sleep Hygiene and Changing Our Night-time Habits to Relaxation

We spend a lot of time and money training our children to know how to put themselves to bed so that they are ready to fall asleep within 15 minutes of getting into bed.  As adults, don't realize that our poor quality of sleep is most often created by not having a nighttime ritual designed for the preparation for quality sleep.  The recommended treatment for insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy.  Put another way: the treatment is learning how to put yourself to bed so that your brain is in rest mode and knowing how to manage stress-inducing thoughts at night.eat-and-sleep-well-neurofeedback-training-co

The key being ready for sleep is: 

  1. Having a clear boundary that nighttime is for rest and restoring the body.
  2. Being relaxed

Read More on improving sleep and download our e-book on sleep hygiene


What Prevents Good Sleep Hygiene?

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 watch stimulating TV programs, or check our work emails just before bed.  We have to understand and switch our preference from being stimulated and emotionally engaged to being calm and even bored just before bed.

Understand the Relaxation Response

Becoming familiar with relaxation is a process.  We don't switch from being stressed out all the time to being calm in one day or even one month.  The first step is understanding why relaxation is so important.  The second step is being able to register what it feels like in the body to be relaxed.

Here is a common conversation I have with clients who are beginning to experiencing the relaxation response from a neurofeedback session.   Neurofeedback is a EEG brain training technology that brings the brain out of the stress response.  (Watch a video that explains how, "What is Neurofeedback".)

neurofeedback session

Neurofeedback Client: What is this heavy sensation? Why am I feeling low?

Natalie: 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 Worried and Fearful 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!  

Working with lowering our stress by changing our lifestyle takes time.  Give yourself three months of incrementally adding new habits.  Don't assess the improvements until two months, then reflect on what's having an impact and what isn't. 

The most important change is our attitude:  We can rewire our brains to be calmer and happier.  It just takes some effort and time.  

Keep Reading!

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ABOUT AUTHORNatalie N Baker, LMHC

Natalie N. Baker, LMHC, is the founder of Neurofeedack Training Co. and certified Advanced NeurOptimal® Neurofeedback trainer. She holds a Master's Degree in Counseling and has been working as a psychotherapist since 1999. As a practicing Buddhist since 1991 and a meditation teacher since 1998, Natalie combines her Western and Eastern approaches to bring a broader perspective to mental health and wellness. In 2010 she added neurofeedback therapy to her practice as additional support for optimizing wellness.

Expertise: Psychotherapy, Neurofeedback & NeurOptimal Trainer Representative. 

Location: New York City, 32 Union Square, E1017, NY 10003
Email: Natalie@neurofeedbacktraining.com
Phone: 347-860-4778

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