Posted on Nov 2nd, 2006

Why do we so often find it so hard to switch off and relax? What is it that makes us feel tense and twitchy just when we need to sleep or recover from all that hard work and stress? It seems that our own bodies are working against us at times – and in a way, they sometimes are.

Our Nervous System

A part of our neural equipment, the autonomic nervous system, which controls organs such as the heart, stomach and intestines, is made up of two even more specialised sections. These are the sympathetic nervous system, which sounds friendly but is actually what causes us to become tense in times of danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls relaxation. The PNS causes your blood pressure to decrease, your heart to beat slower, and makes digestion easier. It sounds like a neat trick, but the trouble is that this auto-relaxer operates involuntarily, as an unconscious process – almost as if it has a mind of its own.

Actively Relaxing

So, relaxing isn’t just what happens when we’re not tense, but is in fact a separate, active process. It’s like what happens when you’re driving a car and you take your foot off the accelerator - the car may slow down or not, depending on the slope of the road, but if you actually want to stop, you have to hit the brakes.

That might explain why I’ve sometimes spent an evening sitting around doing very little but I haven’t really felt more relaxed as a result - just leaving a gap in your activity isn’t the same as actually relaxing. All we have to do is…

So how does the parasympathetic nervous system work?

Basically like all nervous activity: a mix of electrical and chemical messages brings a signal that tells the system to do something. In this case, it instructs specific muscles to let go and relax. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? All we have to do is tell ourselves to relax and we have a little system that will make it happen.

The unconscious – our personal assistant

So why isn’t it as easy as that? Why do we get so stressed when it should be so easy to be calm? The thing to remember is that all of this activity happens out of our conscious awareness. Consciousness is only a small part of our lives and we only have room for a few thoughts at a time in our awareness. Meanwhile, the unconscious mind takes care of all our automatic activity, like walking, digesting, breathing, doing familiar tasks and reacting to the things we encounter with learned responses. It’s like having a personal assistant to deal with the routine stuff.

Think of all the times you have travelled home and not consciously noticed the journey, or done a job you do every day while your mind is on something else. It’s a wonderful way of working - once you have learned how to do something you can free your mind to focus on something else while you do it. The only snag occurs when you have learned a habitual response that works against you.

Here’s an example

I’ll give an example: back at school I was physically small, which is not really a problem were it not for my unfortunate habit of speaking my mind. Naturally I attracted the attention of bullies, who made my life pretty unpleasant at times. As an adult I noticed I would sometimes tense up and lose confidence when in the company of physically large men, even if they were being friendly. I came to realise that my unconscious was automatically creating a fear response to warn me because it had learned that big males were dangerous. Because the unconscious is not logical, it made no difference what I told myself, it just kept on giving me the response it had learned.

I got so annoyed with some of my habits that I decided to do something about it, so I started a journey that has involved learning hypnosis and NLP. Hypnosis is all about being really deeply relaxed, so I get plenty of practice. Now I help others to swap old habits for new ones that work better for them. Along the way I have helped many people to overcome stress by learning how to relax actively.

We can all learn to relax

The good news is that we can all learn the relaxation habit. Even though we might be unable to simply tell our unconscious to cool it (it thinks it knows what’s best for us) we can teach it to do what we want by connecting an outside stimulus with a relaxed state. One example is music, which has been used throughout history to adjust our moods. A new kind of relaxation music is emerging that is carefully designed to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, causing the brain to operate in a calmer way.

Of course, if you want to be really thorough you can learn meditation or yoga, both of which can have a profound effect on our ability to be calm. Many of us find it hard to find the time to explore these disciplines and for us there’s always the option of putting a calming CD on and letting our bodies respond naturally to the sounds.

Graham Smith’s album ‘Calmtime, relaxation music for all the family’, is available from You can read about how he uses NLP and hypnosis to help people live the lives they want at

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