Why You Can’t Relax
5 reasons you cannot relax

(Approximate reading time 2 minutes)

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I am one of those people that find it hard to relax.  Doing nothing seems like a waste of time for me.  I remember my ex-boss once urging me: “You know, you really need to learn to have fun”.   I have come a long way.  I’ve since learned about the difference between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, learned about how being at ease is absolutely essential for our long term health.  But I have to admit, relaxation is still not my strong suit, and I have to constantly remind myself.  If you are like me, you’ll find the following article useful.  The English version of this article is taken from Amen Clinic’s blog “5 Reasons Your Brain (and You) Can’t Relax”.

“I almost don’t feel comfortable being relaxed.” That’s what “Pretty Little Liars” actress Tammin Sursok recently told Dr. Daniel Amen in an episode of Scan My Brain, a video series featuring high-profile individuals who share their brain SPECT scans and open up about their mental health. In the past, a previous doctor suggested that Sursok try Xanax. “I tried a half of one and it felt so foreign to me, that feeling of being relaxed, that I did not feel comfortable,” the actress said. “If I feel too relaxed, I get more anxiety.”

Sursok’s reaction is more common than you might imagine. Perhaps you can relate. When you have a free hour in your day, are you able to kick your feet up and read a great book for pleasure, listen to music that makes you happy, or just let your mind wander? Or do you feel antsy about “wasting time” and throw some clothes in the washing machine, grab a book that you should read for work, or feel guilty about not being productive?

Why is it so hard for some people to relax? A host of common issues inside the brain might be to blame for keeping your mind spinning.

1. Your brain wants a dopamine rush.

Some people with low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is commonly seen in people with ADD/ADHD, tend to be excitement-seeking and conflict-driven. For these people, relaxing is just another word for boring. Big thrills—whether they come from bungee jumping, taking a spontaneous road trip, or even having an argument—boost dopamine in the brain. Sursok, whose brain SPECT scans showed activity patterns typically seen in those with ADD/ADHD, says she sometimes finds herself searching for that dopamine rush by creating conflict in her close relationships. “Things will be going really well, and I’ll be having a great day with my husband and then something will trigger me, and I will go straight to getting that feeling up, getting my heart to palpitate.”

Relaxation Rx: Boost dopamine in healthier ways to reduce the need to seek excitement or conflict. You can increase the neurotransmitter naturally by eating a higher-protein, lower-carbohydrate diet and taking nutritional supplements like green tea, rhodiola, and ginseng.

2. Your emotional brain is overactive.

When the brain’s emotional centers and fear centers are overactive, it can be associated with depression and anxiety. If you have this common brain pattern, you may stay busy as a way to distract yourself from your anxious thoughts and feelings of hopelessness. When the world calms down around you, it’s like those worries and depressed moods come into sharper focus.

Relaxation Rx: Practice mental hygiene by challenging the automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that creep into your mind and prevent relaxation. Supplements that calm the emotional and fear centers of the brain include saffron, omega-3 fatty acids, and GABA. Bright light therapy and the scent of lavender may also help.

3. Your sympathetic nervous system is stuck in overdrive.

Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the fight-or-flight response that makes us feel anxious and afraid. Our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the relaxation response that counterbalances the SNS and helps us calm down after a heart-pounding incident. When the nervous system is healthy, they work in concert to help us manage stress. Chronic stress or prolonged trauma, however, can interfere with the body’s relaxation mechanism. When trauma is severe or prolonged or it leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the SNS can get stuck on, making you feel restless, anxious, panicky, hyperaroused, hypervigilant, or sleepless. If this is the case, even when you try to relax, you aren’t able to shake off those feelings.

Relaxation Rx: If the SNS is stuck on, calm it with meditation, prayer, hypnosis, guided imagery, diaphragmatic breathing, and calming supplements, such as GABA, magnesium, or theanine. For PTSD, therapeutic interventions such as EMDR may be helpful.

4. You stress about relaxation.

When relaxation is just another task on your to-do list, it can be counterproductive. And if you approach it with a perfectionist attitude, it could backfire. For example, checking your heart rate monitor every few seconds as you engage in deep breathing or meditation to see if your level is going down may actually increase feelings of anxiousness.

Relaxation Rx: If this sounds like you, don’t make relaxation a chore. Rid yourself of expectations and just breathe, take a walk, or meditate without any goals. And remember, self-care isn’t one size fits all. Try a variety of activities and hobbies to see what works for you.

5. You fuel your brain with distressing news.

If you’re hooked on watching or reading the news, you’re basically feeding your brain a steady diet of disturbing deaths, disasters, and divisive politics. You’re flooding your mind with toxic thoughts that activate the brain’s fear circuits, making you feel chronically anxious and afraid. It’s hard to relax when you’re constantly on edge and your brain is seeking out the next impending disaster around the corner.

Relaxation Rx: Limit your media consumption and subscribe to news outlets, such as the Good News Network, which specializes in highlighting the positive things that are happening in our world.