Peaceful. Tranquil. Settled. Calm. For some of us, experiencing a restful state is enjoyable and sought after. Some people can unplug from the crazy demands of work or technology and connect to what helps them to relax: reading a good book, spending time in nature, or connecting with a loved one.
True relaxation happens through the types of activities that help our nervous system settle and recharge – something vital to our mental and physical health.
Research tells us that people who can experience a calm state in their day-to-day life tend to be those who take reasonably good care of themselves. They have meaningful relationships and tend to be involved in purposeful social, academic, or vocational ventures. They usually possess a healthy repertoire of coping skills and are good at reaching out for support when they need to.
For some people, a calm state can be completely foreign or incredibly uncomfortable.
It’s almost as if their nervous system doesn’t know how to settle into a restful state in healthy ways – their “gas pedal” always seems stuck on high with the engine revving. They don’t find it easy to relax. Some of my clients tell me that slowing down creates anxiety for them – that being truly relaxed makes them uneasy. They are more likely to find one more thing to do before taking a break. They live their lives in busy mode. Or they might be drawn to numbing out with substances or the use of technology in ways that are more like shutting down rather than finding true rest.
How Our Brain and Body Gets Wired for Relaxation
Let’s talk about how our brain and bodies function. Our autonomic nervous system is essentially our operating system. It runs without significant conscious awareness and regulates most of the activity in our brain and our physical bodies: heart rate, digestion, temperature, and brain activity. This operating system is involved in both our ability to find rest and relaxation as well as our responses to stress, anxiety, and threat.
Most of us are familiar with the changes that occur in our bodies when we experience stress: our heart rate increases, we have more physical tension, or we experience discomfort in our abdomen. This is because the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system has been activated – the branch responsible for responding to threat and our fight or flight response. Our bodies react to stress or threat in many ways: stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released, the heart rate increases, muscles get activated, and the rate of respiration increases. It doesn’t matter if we are running out of a burning building or worrying about our finances – the same system in our body is responding: the sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system acts like the gas pedal that turns on when we are faced with stress, anxiety, or any other type of threat.
But our nervous system also requires the ability for the stress response to slow down or get de-activated when we’re not dealing with something stressful. This is the job of the other branch of our autonomic nervous system – the parasympathetic branch. This system acts as a brake pedal and is responsible for calming processes that include rest, digestion, growth, and healing. It is also the branch that enables us to have a calming and restorative connection with others.
Our “brake pedal” also needs to be activated enough for us to experience physical and mental health.
What Shapes Our Capacity to Relax?
What actually helps allow our nervous system to relax and slow down? What enables us to turn off the gas pedal and engage the brake? Research in the areas of neuroscience (the study of our brain) and neurophysiology (the brain/body connection) provide us with some valuable insights. We learn some essential things from understanding attachment theory and the impact of our early relationships with caregivers. There is also a new and exciting field of research: interpersonal neurobiology that looks at the effects that interpersonal relationships have on the wiring of our brain and nervous system.
We are learning so much about the impact that early relational experiences have on the structure and function of our brain and our nervous system. There are vital ways that our caregivers ideally contributed to our capacity to rest, relax, and regulate. But many people did not actually get enough of what was ideal in their childhood – and this has affected their ability to rest and relax in significant ways.
Our earliest relationships helped shape the way our brain is wired and how it functions – including our capacity to relax.
Let’s look at 4 different ways our early relationships shape the crucial need to relax:
Human beings are wired for attachment and connection to others – it’s one of our most basic needs. And this sense of connection is essential to almost every part of our development. Attachment theory helps us understand the impact that the early parent-child relationship has on the development of a child. Healthy attachment early in life helps promote emotional well-being, including the capacity to rest and relax.
Secure attachment develops when early caregivers provide enough care in ways that communicate love and safety. We also needed them to help protect us from the full impact of stressful situations by providing support and soothing that calmed us down when something felt stressful or threatening.
Healthy attachment relationships form the basis for our capacity to develop strong and supportive relationships as an adult.
Attunement is a concept closely related to attachment. It’s about the sense of being seen and understood by those we have attachment relationships with. It is our experience of being known and our needs being responded to – we are comforted when upset and soothed when scared. Or they see our joy and celebrate with us. Attunement allows us to feel deeply connected to and loved by another person. And it is this connection that gives us a sense of safety and comfort in being known.
Being seen, known and loved, allows us to regulate painful emotions like loneliness and shame.
3. Emotional Regulation
As infants, we are not born with emotional regulation systems – these are developed as we mature. Much of what we learned about emotions and their regulation was learned from our families – we learned emotional regulation by being regulated by our caregivers. Healthy emotion regulation tools develop when attachment relationships are consistent and attuned to the needs of the infant – this forms the basis for how caregivers help regulate overwhelming emotions like distress or fear for their child.
The very nature of this regulation process helps brains and coping mechanisms develop to their fullest capacity.
4. Rupture and Repair Cycles
Every relationship that exists has moments when connection and attunement are ruptured – it occurs when there is conflict or when our needs aren’t adequately met. Even the process of discipline is a source of rupture in the parent-child relationship. Our early experiences with this inevitable (and painful) part of life has a profound impact on our sense of self and our connection with others. We’ve been in relationships with imperfect human beings since the moment our own imperfect selves were born. Healthy relationships require the capacity to manage the impacts when ruptures occur. In other words, strong attachment relationships can find repair and reconnection when something has that challenged the connection.
Something always ruptures connection between people who love each other. Our relationships are healthiest when there’s the ability to move past the rupture back into genuine connection – a process that requires the ability to repair through love, acknowledgement of wrongs, forgiveness, and desire for reconnection.
Rupture and repair cycles help us tolerate painful experiences of conflict in our meaningful relationships – we learn there are ways to return to connection even after a painful rupture.
Safe Connections Are Vital
Safety and connection in our earliest relationships set us up for the ability to find safety and connection in our adult relationships. And when this happens, we experience a cascade of benefits: we feel more alive and joyful, more connected to the world and the people in it. Healthy relationships also affect our bodily systems – safe connections help turn down the “gas pedal” responses so that we have a greater sense of calm. Bessel van der Kolk, a leading trauma expert, says this:
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
The Impact of Early Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences
Our relationships with parents and caregivers have shaped how we learned how to manage emotional experiences. They also helped develop our capacity for connection. They were our role-models for emotional regulation strategies, whether it was in healthy or unhealthy ways.
Many people, especially those with substance misuse and addiction disorders, have experienced trauma early in their lives. When threatening experiences are buffered by supportive adults, the risk of these experiences creating long-term impacts is significantly reduced. It helps the child feel supported and connected to the adults caring for them – it helps their nervous system calm down after they experience something threatening.
When a Caregiver is a Source of Trauma
What happens when a caregiver is a source of threat or trauma? Sometimes parents or attachment figures have been extraordinarily inconsistent, frustrating, violent, or neglectful. Children in these families become distressed without having supportive relationships that help provide relief. Their ability to regulate their overwhelming emotions and cope with stressors tends to get diminished, so they remain overwhelmed or they shut down.
Most people who misuse substances or engage in mood-altering (and addictive) behaviours use them as a way of coping with feeling overwhelmed.
They haven’t had enough childhood experiences that helped wire their nervous system to be able to regulate strong emotions or move toward healthy and supportive relationships to help them calm down. As a result, they rarely enjoy that sense of peaceful calm.
If you or someone you love experiences an addiction disorder, it’s essential to consider the ways that childhood attachment relationships and adverse childhood experiences have impacted the ability to find that sense of true calm. I always say this: “The problem is the problem.”
Early childhood experiences that shaped your ability (or inability) to engage your nervous system’s brake system might be the problem that your substance use is trying to “fix”.
Do you relate to having a nervous system that can’t seem to relax or enjoy peaceful moments without needing to shutdown using substances or behaviours? There is definitely help for working through that. Support from a therapist trained in trauma and addiction can help you unravel the impacts of painful childhood experiences. They can help you develop coping tools and emotional regulation tools so that substance use doesn’t need to remain the only way to cope.
At Carrie DeJong & Associates, we are able to offer therapeutic support to people wanting to address trauma as well as substance use or addiction disorders, especially if trauma has been a contributing factor. Call us at 604 808-0806.