Relaxation Resistance

by Thomas J. Schumacher, Psy. D., R-CSW
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“A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell”

        George Bernard Shaw, (1856-1920)


Our widespread inability to relax is rarely acknowledged.  Few of us are comfortable admitting that we have a tremendous amount of difficulty in being able to relax.   Come Monday morning, when asked about your weekend, you reflexively spout out that is was “great.”  It is equally as common for us to list our relaxation activities (i.e., we were at the beach house, out on the boat, etc., etc.) as though these activities clearly imply that we truly enjoyed them and we were readily able to relax.  However, relaxation is usually about a state of “being” and not about a state of “doing.”  Therefore, no list of relaxation activities guarantees “being” in a state of relaxation.

Most people view being able to relax as simply mind over matter.  Should someone tell you that they were unable to relax, you might listen sympathetically but also might feel that the person was just not exercising enough control over himself or herself.  Often, we see the inability to relax as a sort of weakness on the part of the person.  In addition, many people also believe that relaxation is a natural state.  You just take time off, do things you like to do, and relax.  If there is a barrier to relaxation, it is believed that it is linked to stress – too much work, too little money, too little time, and too many responsibilities.   Many believe that if they had both more time and more money, then relaxation would be sure to follow.  News Flash: All of the above beliefs are false … relaxation is an unnatural state!

To understand this you need to look at human brain development and observe some basic elements in nature.   One major feature here is the instinctual drive for survival.  Nature gives all animals some protection against its natural predators.  But, in order to survive, surveillance is required.  The bird that decides to take a nap at the base of the feeder might be easy prey for the local cat.  The chipmunk that doesn’t keep a close lookout will fall prey to a hawk.  The unpleasant reality is that in nature, most everyone is trying to eat everyone else.  “Eat or be eaten” is one of the primary laws out there. 

Although human beings are capable of rational thought, our brains developed in an evolutionary way.  Part of early brain development (often called the reptilian brain) is where primitive impulsive and archaic behaviors reside.  We can often override these primitive impulses, but they remain intact and emerge episodically through life.  Therefore, our natural state is to maintain our sense of alertness in order to protect ourselves.  Relaxation implies that we let down this antenna system.  It means turning off the radar so that we will not be attuned to incoming missiles.  The natural state is to maintain round the clock radar.  Our built in radar system does not come with an on – off switch.  It is hard wired and always working.  Hence, when we try to relax, we are often frustrated.  You may have a planned day off and you want to relax.  Although you have created the “right” environment, you sit there trying to relax while your radar system fills your head with all kinds of stuff.  The next day, rather than feel refreshed, you feel depleted.   Remembering that relaxation is an unnatural state, recognize the bind you are in and relieve yourself of the pressure and the guilt you may feel as a result.  Rather than help you to relax, pressure and guilt only serve as barriers.  Many of you feel that you are supposed to be relaxed and try to drive yourself into a state of relaxation.  Pressuring yourself to relax will guarantee your inability to relax.  Relaxation only comes when allowed; it cannot occur when forced.  Similarly, guilt is both unwarranted and non-productive. 

So, how do you relax?  Can anything be done to achieve a relaxed state?  The answer is a conditional “yes”.  It can be done.   However, your expectations need to be realistic.  Although you can learn to relax, you probably will not be able to do it “on command” and “at will.”  Some days it will go well.  Other days, for a variety of reasons, it will not.

The key to relaxation is to find ways to temporarily fool the reptilian brain into going on vacation.  If it remains at its sentry post, then you will be too aroused and defended to achieve a state of relaxation.  Next, there are a lot of individual differences in what will work.  Below are just a few of the more common methods to achieve a state of relaxation.  None are universal.   You will need to experiment to see what works for you.  And, even then, it may not work consistently.  Bottom line: you must pick and choose techniques that are suited to your needs, temperament and lifestyle.

1)       Music: – For many people, music is effective.  It bypasses the sensor and can draw you in, in a meaningful and pleasurable way.  Most all cultures have rituals based in music that have evolved over many centuries.  The key here is to focus on what music evokes in you.  The idea is to feel something.  Numbness is not equivalent to relaxation.  If any activities are making you feel numb, then you are narcotizing yourself, not relaxing. 

2)       Meditation: – Meditation has been a staple for relaxation for quite some time.  This technique is about focusing your attention.  The problem with it is that its results are subtle; it takes a good deal of time and effort, and is easy to abandon.  Meditation is not for everyone.  But, it is worth a try.  Herbert Benson’s “Relaxation Response” may be a suitable beginning guide as is “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook” (New Harbinger Publications). 

3)       Religion: – Religion, if it provides you with a sense of sanctuary, often achieves a relaxed state.  The key here is your sense of safety and security.  If you feel you achieve this feeling, then religion may be one of your avenues to relaxation.

4)       Move Your Butt: – Exercise, if not compulsively driven, can help relieve some of the physical tension that builds up in the course of a day.  Walking, jogging, running, bicycling, swimming, or playing tennis relaxes muscles and relieves tension.  Give yoga a try … it’s a soothing way to exercise.  Note: some find the relaxation in the aftermath of the exercise rather than during the exercise. 

5)       Touch: – Touch is the only universal relaxer.  It bypasses all of the defenses and is actually vital to survival.  If you are not getting enough touch, then achieving a relaxed state will be very difficult.  But there are some caveats here.  The main one is that there are two kinds of touch.  One is a “giving touch” in which you feel someone is giving something to you.  The other is a “taking touch” in which you feel someone is taking something from you.  The “giving touch” is essential and productive one.  The “taking touch” has nothing to do with the spirit of touch.   Do not be a party to “taking touch”.  It will only get you father away from where you need to be.  “Giving touch” leads to genuine intimacy and relaxation.  Sensual and erotic touch is a legitimate part of “giving touch”.  “Taking touch” turns the people into objects.  The intimacy is counterfeit and will only re-energize the sensor.  Most everyone can instinctively tell the difference between the two.

6)       Relax Your Muscles:   Learn about progressive muscle relaxation, s-t-r-e-t-c-h your muscles on a regular basis, or treat yourself to a massage, all great ways to relax muscles and enhance feelings of relaxation. 

7)       Get Practical: Learn about the benefits of deep breathing, visualization techniques, or picture yourself relaxed through guided imagery.  Cut down on caffeine (a potent central nervous system stimulant), get plenty of rest (sleep deprivation compromises your immune system, reduces your ability to cope with daily stressors, clouds your cognitive functioning, makes you sound stupid, and increases irritability. Use alcohol in moderation, when the “high” wears off, you’ll feel drained – not relaxed. 

8)       Get Smart: Learn to say “no” to excessive demands on your time and energy that increase your stress level, deal with and express your anger/rage, learn to manage your time effectively, and rejuvenate yourself through a hobby – all way’s for you to cognitively and socially nurture yourself.

9)       Get Connected: Develop a social network.  An influx of new research suggests that emotional support helps protect people against the ill effects of stress.  Consistent contact with supportive people, community organizations, and/or satisfying causes, all act as a built-in buffer to stress.  Therefore, make your world larger than your spouse, lover, family and/or your immediate circle of friends.  Carve out time for each and nurture these attachments and they will nurture you. 

10)  Too Bad If They Can’t Take a Joke: Have a good laugh! Laughter deepens your breathing, lowers your blood pressure and releases endorphins, stimulating the pleasure center of the brain.  At the same time, studies show, laughter seems to decrease the production of stress hormones from the adrenal glands.

Related Articles:

  - Stress Management: Tips & Techniques
  - Identifying and Reducing Stress in Your Life
  - I, Caregiver Channel

Recommended Reading:

  - "The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook" by Martha Davis, et al.
  - “Relaxation Response” by Herbert Benson

  - Caregiver’s Reprieve: A Guide to Emotional Survival by Avrene Brandt, Ph.D.
  - Taking Time for Me: How Caregivers Can Effectively Deal With Stress by Katherine L. Karr


Presented as a community service by Dr. Tom Schumacher.  Individual, Couple and Marital counseling by appointment only.404 Jerusalem Ave., Hicksville, NY 11801 Telephone: (516) 681-3104 AND 19th West 34th Street, Penthouse, New York, NY 10001 Telephone: (212) 947-7111


Available from ElderCare Online™                2003 Thomas J. Schumacher