But what if I can’t relax?


Last week’s blog made anxiety solutions sound fairly simple: Relax! Meditate!

“But, Richelle, how do I meditate when I can’t relax? How do I relax when the world is full of dangers? How do I calm down when life is so hectic?”

I know that’s what some of you were thinking, because that’s what my clients tell me in therapy, as well.

First, get your mind right

In order to relax, we need to get clear about the difference between danger and perceived threat. Before I go further, I have to give a shout-out here to Dr. J. Eric Gentry, whose work fleshed out many of these concepts for me.

So I’ll begin by asking you a question: Are you 100% safe right now? This almost feels like a trick question. I was at a professional seminar recently with Dr. Gentry where he asked this of a room full of therapists. And a room full of therapists said what everyone says: No! Of course not! We’re never 100% safe! Anything could happen in the next five minutes.

But it’s not a trick question, and you are (more than likely) 100% safe right now. If you’re sitting in front of a screen reading a blog, then you aren’t in the midst of falling off a cliff, getting kidnapped or watching a tornado tear off your roof. I know you may not feel  safe, and anything actually could happen in the next five minutes. But we’re talking about now. Is there anything in your environment right now that requires you to take action right now to protect your body or your life? If not, then you’re safe, and it’s time for relaxation mode.

Second, relax your body

Your body can only hold tension for so long before this becomes unhealthy and exhausting and you become ultimately less able to respond to a crisis.  A lot of people — especially those who have experienced extremely scary or painful things — fall into the trap of becoming hyper-vigilant for danger. This is an over-response and reduces our effectiveness in a crisis. When we are tense or anxious, certain brain functions become impaired. When we’re too stressed, we can’t think straight or process information quickly and appropriately.

There are many relaxation techniques out there. Some take a while to do. I’m thinking particularly of progressive muscle relaxation. This is a great tool to use at bedtime if you have a hard time sleeping, but it’s less useful in anxious moments at work or in your car, since it takes several minutes to complete and requires you to zone out for a bit.

Today we’ll focus on things that we can do quickly, in the moment. First, do not underestimate the importance of a deep, long, cleansing breath. Try taking one right now. Breathe in through your nose for 4-6 seconds, hold for a count of 2, and then breathe out through your nose for 2 seconds longer than your in-breath.

Now do it a second time, but on the out-breath, relax your whole body, like a wet noodle. Go limp.

Do it one more time, but on this one, focus just on relaxing your core and your pelvic floor — everything between your belly button and what you’re sitting on. If it’s hard to connect with that area, try contracting all those muscles first and then releasing them. Once you know how to do this, you can simply release these muscles when you notice they’re tight. Instant physical relaxation.

Third, start facing the world with relaxed muscles

The idea is to use these relaxation strategies as soon as you notice internal signs of anxiety or tension. These signs are unique to each person, but they generally include tightening in the diaphragm (the breathing muscle), the pelvic floor and often the shoulders and jaw or forehead. Some people notice a physical sensation almost as if something is literally squeezing their body, or feeling an urge to lash out at the other person (more on this in another blog post) or exit the situation ASAP.

Most “threats” we face on a daily basis are social or ego threats. The boss is criticizing us or our kids won’t do what we’ve asked. There is no actual danger, so we have to calm down our body’s anxiety circuits or we lose our ability to act effectively.

You can do this relaxation in mid-conversation and it’s essentially invisible to the other person. You may notice a lot of interesting effects. In my experience, my vision instantly improves — my peripheral vision widens and I am more acutely aware of the face of the person I’m talking to, instead of being distracted by my internal worry machine.

So other than deciding whether you’re in danger or not, thoughts are really out of the picture with these techniques. Telling yourself mentally that you should relax is far different from doing a specific thing with your muscles. Don’t argue with yourself, just release your muscles and see if new, calmer behaviors become available to you in stressful situations.

Try it, and please comment if you find this helpful.

May you be well.

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