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