Why relaxation is not the solution for chronic stress

We all know what stress feels like: that horrible tension, heart rate rising, general feelings of unease - a series of physiological changes caused by our ancient nervous system in response to a perceived threat, commonly known as the fight-or-flight response.

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For millions of years, those reactions have been keeping mammals alive (including us). However, in our modern world, perceived threats are extremely complex. They come in via email, WhatsApp, a disgruntled work colleague's micro-aggressions, performance reviews, meetings, dates, anniversaries, credit card bills, parking fines, and so on. You get the idea; it is not like it used to be in the savannah; we now see threats everywhere, even when they are not actually dangerous.


Relaxation and chronic stress

It is a common belief that relaxation is a solution for stress and anxiety, however, relaxation alone doesn’t work. In fact, relaxation can work as an avoidance strategy, used to “stop worrying” temporarily, without addressing the actual problem, which inevitably returns and triggers stress again.

We all know what stress feels like: that horrible tension, heart rate rising, general feelings of unease – those are physiological changes caused by our nervous system in response to a perceived threat: the fight-or-flight response.
However, in our modern world, perceived threats are extremely complex. They come in via email, WhatsApp, credit card bills, parking fines, and so on. Far from the life-threatening situations our ancestors have experienced, and for which our nervous system has evolved.

Much of the modern wellness industry has been built on the basis of relaxation as an antidote to stress, and this is partially valid. Relaxation reduces the fight-or-flight response, helping us feel more calm, positive, and less fearful. But what happens once you walk into the office (or home) into the same usual stressors?

Understanding the sources of stress

Stress is a biological reaction to a threat. Our perception of threat, however, is complex, and often inaccurate. We perceive threats from real or imagined situations with the same intensity, and our bodies don't know the difference.
Although some stress is unavoidable, possibly even helpful (think excitement ahead of an achievable challenge), stress makes us hypersensitive to potential threats, increases aggression and hostility, and impairs our judgement, undermining our health and relationships.


Reducing stress permanently

To reduce stress permanently and sustainably we need to identify its triggers and "maintaining factors".

We are poor judges of real danger

We fear certain outcomes because they are uncomfortable, regardless of real danger. My boss won’t kill me at my next performance review, but it feels like it. Therefore, I cannot sleep for two days ahead of performance reviews. I might fear job loss, but most likely my dread is due to the discomfort of having to explain myself, and not much else.

When relaxation is used to "take our mind away" from stressful thoughts, it can result in a failure to truly understand the situation (and the actual risks) because we haven't spent enough time with the thought. We need to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, so thinking about your problems is endurable and not avoided. 

A bit of evolutionary science

Over millions of years, our brain has increased in volume by evolving an amazing outer layer where neurons are covered by a shield of Myelin, making them a zillion times faster than neurons not in the outer layer. 

We call this outer layer the cortex. Our mid and lower brains are more primitive and simpler (closer to the edge of the neck, where it meets the spine). They control our internal organs and our physiology. They don't take direct instructions from cortex-lead thoughts (preventing us from lethally holding our own breath or stopping our heart from beating.), which is why they are part of the autonomous nervous system. 

But our thoughts influence our lower brains indirectly. For example, if you start thinking of your favourite food, it can trigger the mid-brain to activate your digestive system, and we cannot do that directly. Equally, if you think of something dangerous, your body's stress response will be activated: even if the threat is not present or real.

We also pick up danger cues directly from the environment. Seeing others frightened, hostile, or angry can also trigger the stress response.

When we start thinking of bills to pay, keeping our jobs, or keeping a partner happy, our autonomic nervous system will react to how we perceive those situations. If we are afraid that we won't be able to pay our bills, this thought alone will trigger the stress response.

We are extremely sensitive to our own imagination. Our thoughts are very powerful. 

Smoke and mirrors

Because our bodies react to imagined threats as if they were real, we may wrongly believe the danger is real - "if I feel it, it must be right". In addition, stress puts us in a "high-alert" state that filters our attention to potential danger - the keyword here is "potential", not actual danger. By this stage, we may become much more pessimistic, worried, and hostile than we ought to be.

To add fuel to the fire, we tend to become more aggressive under stress (we cannot help that as our nervous system is causing a series of physiological responses). But aggression, in turn, triggers a stress response in others - and you can see how things can escalate quickly then. This cycle can be perpetuated until someone withdraws or something bad happens.

This is how self-fulfilling prophecies start: I fear losing my job > I became aggressive/defensive > I cause stress in others > they either become aggressive/defensive or withdraw from me > the atmosphere goes sour I am fired or leave for another job.

This can happen to relationships, friendships, projects, hobbies, and so on.


The solution to stress

Although relaxation helps de-escalate the stress response, helping us think more clearly, connect with others, and feel better about ourselves, it is far from the solution.

Unless the thought processes and triggers causing the stress response are identified and addressed, they will keep triggering it, and we will keep reacting the same way, and the results will be the same. So you can treat yourself to many relaxing weekends away, dozen of massages, meditate until you drop, but the moment you step into a situation again, it all comes back.

Relaxation is good, but it is a form of avoidance. It works for a limited amount of time, and it doesn't change how you respond to what has been triggering you. For lasting change, you need something else.

Awareness

Relaxation takes us to a more positive state of mind, and it is an important tool in addressing stress, but it doesn't do much on its own other than temporary relief. 
The stress we experience comes from the story we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves stories of danger: "Losing this job would be terrible, it would mean I am not capable, perhaps my mother was right when she said I was a mess. What will my partner think of me? Oh, he may leave me. And how am I going to pay my bills? What will I say to my friends? How embarrassing. Surely I won't be able to cope with that..." 

The bottom line of such stories is that they are framed in a way where you only see losses everywhere. And our mid-brain doesn't know the difference between losses and death, so we can really make ourselves feel quite miserable and fearful indeed. All we need to do is focus on what we have to lose, all that could go wrong, and how bad it could be. Then we can jump into the self-fulling prophecy loop and, soon enough, bye-bye job.

Awareness is about identifying the stories we are telling ourselves and how they are making us feel. Are there stories of hope? Are you in a hero's journey or a tragic downfall? It is largely up to you to choose how you see your own story, and you can become aware of it and change it. You can take control over your own thoughts and actions when you are aware of what is driving you: hope or helplessness? Excitement or dread? Mastery or victimisation? Are you leading your narrative, or are you letting others take over? 

The hero's journey

It is the journey, not the destination. If we can take a look at our stories and ask ourselves:

  • "Would it really be that bad to lose a job? How many people lose their jobs every day and survive?"
  • "Does this job really defines me as a person, or am I a much bigger and more complex being who lives, who loves, who learns, and who experiences life every day?"
  • "Am I letting the present moment pass while I worry?"
  • "Could losing a job be a good thing? Could it lead me to find something new and more exciting? Besides, no one can take what I have learnt and lived, so even if I lose my job, I will never lose my experience."

A hero's journey is not devoid of challenges and obstacles; quite the opposite, they are the main thing. We like stories of resourcefulness, winning against the odds, survival, and endurance. We would be extremely bored if everything were simply given to us. So can't your story be a hero's journey? No one will do this for you. You are the writer, the director, and the audience. You are the master of your own destiny, and if you go through a self-fulling prophecy, make it a really good one!

Hypnotherapy Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London, England, W1S 1HP
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Written by Caroline Silvestre, BSc, MSc, MBPsS. Dip. Hypno-CBT. ACCPH Senior Member
London, England, W1S 1HP

Caroline is a Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapist, applying principles of Compassion Therapy, Mindfulness, Polyvagal Therapy, and CBT to her practice in London.

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