Just Relax! (Why Telling Yourself to Relax Doesn’t Work)

Many of us would agree that we need to relax more. But we also know that telling ourselves to “just relax” doesn’t work very well. Lying in bed at night, feeling agitated – we tell ourselves to “relax and go to sleep,” which of course leads to greater tension. Our neck, head, jaw, or back get tighter as we tell ourselves to “just let down.” Arggh!

Relaxation cannot be willed.

The willed attempt to RELAX reinforces this sense of separation between “me” (the mental self) that wants the “other” (that darned body) to stop doing something “I” don’t want it to do. Feeling something “I” don’t want it to feel. This very split between psyche and body is part of the problem.

If we identify with the mind and will and see the body as separate and over there – we engage in a variety of things to settle “that body.” We might distract ourselves with other activities (which may not help with actually settling us). Or we might use alcohol or other substances to help “let down” (i.e., change our body state so we feel less tension). Unfortunately, this kind of activity doesn’t reduce the real tension, it just disconnects us from it. The list of ways we distract ourselves or try to settle “that body” is quite long.

Alternatively, practices that bring us up close to our tension so we can experience it directly – rather than further separate our mind from our body – can help our nervous system spontaneously find balance and a more natural relaxed state. This is acceptance at the bodily level. Being with the experience as it is involves a psychophysical acceptance that is different from mentally telling yourself to accept the experience.  Re-connecting body and mind is a basic principle in bioenergetic counseling. In doing so, we rediscover our embodiedness as an essential part of our experience of our whole self.

In bioenergetic psychotherapy and body-mind skills training, we orient to letting our body rediscover a natural state of balance and relaxation – rather than trying to impose relaxation by force of will. Commonly, the route to this more balanced and relaxed experience involves working with the tension and the energy (urge, need, feeling) that lie locked up in it. This may involve close-up awareness of the tension as it is and may involve working with what the tension “wants to do.” Working with tension – rather than willing it to go away – also typically involves working with breathing and with moving the body.

Here’s an experiment

  • Right now, scan your body with your awareness, and notice where you might be “holding” tighter than you need to be. (Common areas of tension might be the jaw, the neck, the chest, shoulders, lower back, lower stomach or pelvis – and of course the arms or legs.
  • Once you find a spot that has tension, try – just for a few moments – telling it to RELAX. What you’ll likely find is that you may be able to get it to “let down” in a very limited way, that the tension around the area is still there, or that you’re having to “hold” the relaxation in place. This kind of tension is related to “performing” relaxation, rather than actually residing in a more natural relaxed state.
  • Now let’s try a different approach. Stop willing yourself to relax and let your awareness to return to being with and embracing the tension. Now breathe. Let your awareness hold the tension without trying to make it different, and continue to breathe in and out.  Don’t stop breathing! You may feel the tension increase or decrease – either is fine. Our purpose is NOT to breathe to make the tension go away. Breathe – and let your awareness gently but steadily rest on, with, and around the tension. Stay with it.
  • If you stay with it long enough, you may find something spontaneously changes. You may feel a new feeling (e.g. tiredness, frustration, anger, sadness) and/or you may feel an urge (e.g., to move that area, to stand, make a sound, stretch, etc.). Let that feeling or urge be there and also let it move you. If it’s surprising, that’s a new psychophysical path – and worth exploring. Explore it. Move, tense further, stretch, make a sound, hit a mattress – whatever emerges.

These are two different approaches to dealing with tension. The first is the traditional will-based approach. The second is an approach that honors that the tension reflects something important in your body-mind, and that being with the tension allows that important thing to emerge so it can be dealt with. This approach recognizes and helps us re-realize the essential unity of body and mind.

In counseling and psychotherapy in this body-mind tradition, we understand that tension serves a purpose in our body-mind. That purpose is often to resist an experience – perhaps a feeling, urge, or knowing that we “shouldn’t” have. Perhaps it reflects a conflict. For example, I’m angry, but I’m not “supposed” to be. Bingo. You have tension in the body-mind. This kind of internal conflict (i.e,, what I’m actually experiencing versus what I’m “supposed” to experience) commonly resides outside our conscious awareness. We can begin to uncover and address it by being with our tension and letting it teach us what we need to know.

Sometimes we carry tension because have a history of trauma. In this case, our body-mind has learned to stay in a state of over-readiness. That is, our body-mind experienced threat that was so extreme, or so long-lasting, that we stay in sympathetic arousal – i.e., preparedness for fight or flight.

Heavy trauma doesn’t respond quickly to such practices as “being with the tension,” though the principle applies even in this kind of struggle. Addressing trauma is beyond the scope of this blog entry. However, even here, it’s important to note that one thing that can be locked in the tension is the urge to fight or flee, to protect the self. These are experiences that can safely and helpfully be addressed in one-on-one work with a therapist.

Going forward, it might be an interesting experiment for you to try this different approach to tension. Instead of willing yourself to relax, bring your awareness to fully embrace the tension that’s there, breathe and keep breathing, and wait until something new emerges in your experience. Let yourself be moved (feeling, motion, vocalization) by that new experience. Repeat.

Open up to the journey and be surprised.