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The Skill of Chilling Out Part 1: Your Brain on Relaxation

How many times have you heard or said, “you just need to relax!” 

Most of us realize that we carry around a lot of unnecessary tension throughout the day. This excess tension not only wastes valuable energy resources but is also linked to a huge list of pain, movement, emotional, and performance issues. In fact, relaxation as a therapeutic approach has proven critical in virtually every field of medicine as well as in high-performance sports and occupations.

However, learning to relax is often easier said than done because many people think that relaxation is something that we should inherently be good at without understanding one critical concept: relaxation is a SKILL that lives in the brain and nervous system.

To develop an appreciation of what this means, this week we want to look at some of the critical brain areas seen in research studies that are involved in the relaxation response and why knowing this matters for brain-based professionals.

Relaxation and the Brain

While we may experience relaxation as a subjective feeling, its roots can be traced back to the complex workings of the brain. Neuroscientists have invested a great deal of research time into understanding the neurological basis of relaxation over the last 30 years, finally shedding light on key brain regions and mechanisms that contribute to this essential skill.

The Amygdala and Stress Response – The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure deep within the brain’s medial temporal lobe. It is a key player in processing emotions, particularly fear and stress responses. When we experience stressful situations, the amygdala activates the body’s “fight, flight or freeze” response, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. However, during relaxation, amygdalar activity decreases, leading to a reduction in stress responses. This calming effect allows the brain to transition from a state of heightened alertness to a more restful state.

The Prefrontal Cortex and Executive Control – The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the brain region responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, attention, and self-control. During relaxation, the PFC plays a crucial role in downregulating the stress response. By exerting inhibitory control over the amygdala and other emotion-processing areas, the PFC helps dampen the effects of stress and anxiety. This cognitive control allows us to shift our focus away from stressors and distractions, redirecting our attention to calming thoughts and experiences.

The Hippocampus and Memory Consolidation – The hippocampus is associated with memory formation and consolidation. During relaxation, the hippocampus becomes more active, facilitating the processing of information and memories acquired during wakeful states. This process of memory consolidation during relaxation is essential for learning, emotional regulation, and mental clarity. Adequate relaxation allows the brain to organize and store memories more efficiently, improving overall cognitive function and emotional well-being.

The Default Mode Network and Mind-Wandering – The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a group of interconnected brain regions that become active during restful wakefulness and mind-wandering. During relaxation, the DMN becomes more engaged, leading to a state of introspection and daydreaming. While it may seem counterintuitive, mind-wandering during relaxation can foster creativity, problem-solving, and self-reflection. This downtime for the brain allows it to process emotions and memories, leading to a more profound understanding of the self and improved emotional regulation.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System and the Relaxation Response – The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing. The ANS is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, with the former being responsible for the “fight or flight” response and the latter for the “rest and digest” response. During relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes more active, promoting a relaxation response characterized by a decrease in heart rate, reduced blood pressure, and increased digestive activity. This physiological shift is crucial for achieving a state of deep relaxation and tranquility.

What does all of this mean?

  1. Relaxation is not merely a subjective state of mind; it is a complex interplay of brain regions and neurochemical processes. 
  2. Brain-based professionals can use relaxation training as a tool to target different areas of the nervous system.
  3. Relaxation is a skill that lives in the brain and is dependent on neuroplastic changes developed through regular practice. 

Understanding the neurology of relaxation offers incredibly valuable insights into the brain’s involvement in calmness and control. The amygdala’s decrease in activity, the PFC’s executive control, the hippocampus’ memory consolidation, the DMN’s introspection, and the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response all contribute to the profound benefits of relaxation. By embracing regular practice of key relaxation techniques, we can harness the power of neuroplasticity to promote well-being, reduce stress, enhance overall mental and physical health, decrease pain, and vastly improve performance on the job and the playing field.

Next week, we will look at two different and highly effective relaxation training approaches, discuss how to choose the best option for yourself or clients, and give you some easy approaches to begin your practice.

We hope you enjoyed this article, and we wish you a wonderful week!

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