The Tao of Relaxing when Stress is a Runaway Train

The Tao of Relaxing when your Stress is a Runaway Train and Why Is That, Anyway?

You’re exhausted but can’t sleep, the to-do list keeps flashing before your eyes and there’s a worry about something that happened today nipping at the edges. Overwhelm is on the horizon (or it’s
already here). Why can’t you slow down when you actually want to? You try to relax with a TV
show, Facebook or a movie but it just revs you up more. And when you put your head on the pillow your brain keeps going and going and going… What is going on?

Your system is on overdrive. Here’s why: Way back when on the Serengeti, the humans that
were hanging out relaxing in the sun didn’t see the lion approaching and got eaten, while those who were vigilantly watching for danger saw it coming; their bodies produced the adrenaline to fight the predator or run away to survive another day. Natural selection handed down our ancestors who were wired to be on the lookout for danger – their very survival depended on it.

Fast forward to today and we are still wired to scan for signs of danger but the stress we deal with is very different. Most likely you’re not in danger of being eaten (call 9-1-1 if you are!) – You are relatively safe most of the time. Much of the stress we deal with can’t be solved with a fight or flight response, which is what our old systems are set for. We are evolutionarily wired to deal with shorter-term problems so long-term stressors like dealing with a difficult boss, medical issues, keeping (or getting) a job, deadlines or relationship difficulties don’t respond to a quick fix.

In short, we have the wrong program running! We end up with our adrenalized fight or flight systems stuck in overdrive, never being able to relax as they were designed to do. Safe in our beds we lie awake, our worries overriding sleep. Our neural programming will keep us working on the problem until it gets solved when in truth it’s the worry itself that plagues us.

In his book Hardwiring Happiness, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson calls this the negativity bias, which means we’re wired to scan for danger. He likens good experiences to Teflon; they slide right off us while negative (read: dangerous) thoughts hold our attention and stick in our memories like Velcro. It’s our old hypervigilant survival mechanism. Besides long exhalations to slow the body/mind down, Hanson’s research has shown that diverting our minds to soothe the brain is a win-win. The first thing is to actually realize we’re on the runaway train of negativity -not so easy since for many of us it’s become a default. The good news is that “thinking about your thinking” can be practiced. It turns out you can make the choice to change a negative thought and not be victimized by it; this is a liberating concept for many. Once you decide to make a shift, find something you’re grateful for or a good thing that happened today and stay with it for 20 seconds. Take it in. Enjoy it. Let it stick like Velcro. You’re not only practicing a form of mindfulness but over time it can rewire those old evolutionary tendencies and actually change your brain. The old default of negativity bias can be shifted with your awareness.

Listening to relaxing music can help you make the shift; so can repeating a comforting phrase until that old unwanted thought is long gone. Then take a deep breath and take as long as you can to exhale – this sends a message to activate your parasympathetic nervous system that says relax, it’s safe, digest your food and rest. No more runaway train.

And by the way, screen activity (TV, computers, phones, pads) will stimulate your brain with all the moving pixels. Your system sees the light moving and goes on hypervigilant mode; not a good way to encourage your system to relax and sleep. Try turning off all screens at least an hour before bed. You got this!

Louise Dimiceli-Mitran is a counselor and music psychotherapist in Chicago. Take a breath and visit her at

What Can’t You Think Without?

There is one thing that molds the shape of our thoughts; something we can’t build buildings or plan days without.  It gets us out of bed in the morning, helps us whip up a meal, make a to­-do list, write an email or fall in love. Movie directors, engineers, artists and construction workers – surgeons, musicians, MBA’s and chefs all use it to create a plan and follow through with their intentions.  Without it, downtown Chicago wouldn’t have been built; your shirt wouldn’t have been designed or the screen you’re reading this on wouldn’t have been conjured up.

Imagery.  We can’t think without it!  We have creative, stream of consciousness, 24-hour images moving through our heads, inspired by a seemingly endless array of sights, sounds, smells and kinesthetic stimulation from our environment. When we sleep, images take the form of dreams delivered in symbols and metaphor blended by our life experiences and shaken into a cocktail of uniquely surreal and perhaps fearful scenarios. We are the products of an incredibly busy brain – a virtual imagery machine.  More about this below, but first: What are images, anyway?

Imagery may be synonymous with pictures or visions to many, but according to the Association for Music and Imagery (AMI) they can also include memories, feelings, and all the senses: what you can hear, smell, touch, taste or see. Images may be fantastic, involving myths or the awareness of flying like an eagle, winning big or falling hard.

Your Inner Landscape

What does this have to do with you?  The images you have of yourself and of others have a deep influence on your mental and physical health.  Researcher Dr. Candace Pert, in her seminal book The Molecules of Emotion, wrote about her discovery of neuropeptides, the molecules that result from our feelings and flow into our immune, neurological and other systems in our bodies. Our thinking changes our chemicals! Think about that. If you constantly beat yourself up with not being enough – smart enough, thin enough, good enough, etc. your body, mind and spirit are flowing with chemicals that correspond with negative feelings.  On the other hand, if you give yourself a break and live with compassion for yourself and others it will be those more positive, healthy chemicals that are swimming through your immune system.

But how do you make a shift when your feelings always feel like a runaway train?

Try this: Stop. Close your eyes if you can. Take a minute for a slow, deep breath (with the longest exhale you can muster), and check in with what you’re feeling at the moment. If it’s good, take a moment to enjoy it; savor and take in those chemicals!  If you realize you’re thinking something that you’d like to change, take another deep breath. Allow yourself to bring up an image of a place you’d like to be (the beach? Or with someone who loves you unconditionally?). Let yourself be there for a minute. Make a decision to spend a little time with it. Notice the colors, scents, temperature and sounds of being there. Feel the temperature. Notice where the light is coming from.  Feel the air on your skin.  Bring in the images that come to you and savor that.  Breathe it in.  You are now in a new place and your body/mind/spirit will be responding, as well as your neuropeptides.  The challenge is allowing it for yourself and knowing you have the power to change your mind!

Louise Dimiceli-Mitran is a counselor and music psychotherapist in Chicago.  Take a breath and visit her at