What Relaxation Is, and What It Isn’t


This week I’m talking about ways to truly, honestly, relax. Last week I talked about burnout. And a big player in burnout is when you never actually get to close the stress loop and you get stuck in the stress response. So, this week, let’s talk about how to shift out of that physiological state of stress and into one of relaxation. I’m sharing my favorite ways to get into that state where you feel calm, at peace, and totally, totally groovy.

I’ll be covering things you can do in 5 minutes or less, 20 minutes or less, or that last about an hour for when you have a longer amount of time. I’m also going to be talking about how to create the conditions of safety, which is a prerequisite for true relaxation. 

Listen to the Podcast Here

But before I start talking brass tacks, in today’s episode. I just want to make a case for relaxation

That probably sounds silly. Who doesn’t want to be able to relax? But we have this idea that relaxing equals being lazy, vegging out, and probably either watching a show or zoning out on your phone. These are all fun, worthwhile activities. No judgments here. But I think of those things as doing nothing. Which, I guess shows you just how programmed we are to be doing something at all times, to the point that we define relaxation as the absence of being productive. 

My husband calls the ability to not have to be doing something all the time leisure skills, which I love. Because leisure is important. And in a capitalist society especially, it’s a skill that you might have to spend some time developing. 

But vegging out, doing nothing, and even leisure skills are not what I’m talking about when I say relaxation. That’s because relaxation is a specific physiological state of being. One that is ruled by your autonomic nervous system. In today’s stressful world, it often doesn’t happen by accident.

So that you can appreciate how important relaxation is, and understand how to invite it into your life, let’s take a quick tour through the nervous system. Which kind of looks like an org chart if you were to map out all its components on paper. 

The nervous system is divided at the top level into two parts:

the central nervous system, and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system consists of your brain and your spinal cord. It is literally central to your body. The peripheral nervous system branches off this central channel and shuttles messages between your organs and muscles and the central nervous system. 

The peripheral nervous also has two primary components. The autonomic nervous system, and the somatic nervous system. 

The somatic nervous system ennervates the body with motor neurons, which carry impulses to and from muscles and allow us to take physical action, and sensory neurons, which delivers information from our sense organs to the central nervous system. 

And I realize this is a lot of info, but stick with me here because we’re just about to get to the juicy stuff, in terms of relaxation

The autonomic nervous system, on the other hand, rules all the functions of your body that happen without your thinking about it. And it, too, is divided into two main branches, and THESE are the ones I want to focus on today, because this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of stress and relaxation.

The two branches of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic nervous system, which rules the fight, flight, or freeze response that happen after you’re exposed to a stressor, and the parasympathetic, which rules our rest and digest functions. 

Both sides are important, and we’re designed to fluidly move between activation of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. But the problem, in our typical modern life where we are peppered with stressful things happen all day long–whether it’s someone looking at you funny because you’re wearing a mask, or someone leaves a mean comment on your tweet, or you know, there’s a pandemic or a shooting or an attack, I mean, ACK!!–we tend to get stuck in the sympathetic realm of things. 

And that means we experience physiological effects such as

  • Our blood pressure goes up
  • Our blood flows more to our muscles and lungs so that we’re prepped for running or fighting, and away from things like our organs of digestion and reproductive organs
  • The body releases glucose into the blood stream because it’s a quick burning source of energy, again in case we need to run away or defend ourselves. 
  • And our levels of stress hormones go up

When your sympathetic nervous is activated, It’s harder to sleep. You tend to overact to little things. You crave sugar because glucose burns quickly and the body feels like we need more on hand in case we have to run away or defend ourselves. And you tend to get anxious. It’s basically a recipe for burnout. 

When your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, on the other hand, 

  • Your heart rate slows down
  • Your breathing gets slower and longer
  • Blood pressure drops
  • Your digestion ramps up
  • Stress hormones decrease

Just like muscles, you can tone your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. And generally, our sympathetic nervous system is overly strong, like a bodybuilder who can barely sit down. And our parasympathetic nervous system is weak, like the muscles in an arm that has been in a cast. 

When you are in the parasympathetic realm, you sleep well, your digestion hums, you don’t crave sugar to keep you going. And more importantly, your stress response is effectively in the OFF position. THIS is when you can heal. And just as importantly, you close the loop on the stressful event, so that you can recover. And this access to recovery makes you more resilient. It helps you bounce back and not get derailed by stressors, little or big. You become much less likely to burnout.  

This week, when I talk about relaxation, I’m talking about things that get you into that juicy parasympathetic realm

That’s where you feel really groovy, sometimes even like you’re floating or vibrating. 

I once attended a three-day workshop explicitly designed to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. After the first day, I fell asleep at nine o’clock, but woke up in the middle of the night to–sorry if this is TMI–to go poop. My digestion was definitely humming and I felt so dreamily relaxed. After the end of the second day, I felt really spacey and silly. Like nothing could bother me and everything was slightly hilarious. It was a little like being on drugs, I guess.

After the third day, truth be told, I felt kinda sick. So, you can definitely dive too deep into parasympathy. So don’t get type A about your relaxation, deal? Like most things in life, it’s about balance. We need both to rise to the occasion when we encounter a stressor, and to dial it down and recuperate and enjoy life. 

So, this was a meaty episode, so you don’t have a tiny assignment today

Just listening WAS the assignment. I just want you to get pumped to try a few relaxation techniques in the rest of the episodes this week. 

I’m looking forward to diving into the parasympathetic realm with you! 


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