Rest and Relaxation: How to Relax, Why You Can't Relax, and What's Getting In Your Way

Rest and Relaxation: How to Relax, Why You Can't Relax, and What's Getting In Your Way

Everyone knows that chronic stress is bad for you, but what most don’t realize, is that acute stress is actually crucial for overall health and wellbeing. Without it, your body would not be able to enter a state of true relaxation. More specifically, how well you react to and recover from an acute stressor dictates how deeply your body will be able to subsequently relax. While most think they should avoid stress at all costs, avoiding stress is a recipe for degeneration. 

Instead, you need to learn how to enter a stressful situation with calm focus, and then subsequently and rapidly recover and move on from the experience. Many people experience difficulty switching from a sense of fear to a sense of peace, and stressful situations follow them throughout their daily decisions even though that situation has ended. Think about it, if you experience an upsetting situation such as a breakup, an offensive interaction with a stranger, or a passive aggressive exchange with a coworker, it is fairly common to feel residual effects of that experience that could impact how you treat others or yourself even as your week or month present additional challenges. 

The truth is, stress and relaxation, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, are two sides of the same coin. Understanding how to shift your mind and body between the two is crucial for overall health, regeneration, longevity, and wellbeing. Unfortunately, most modern humans don’t know the two are connected. Moreover, many people don’t even have the ability to enter states of non sleep deep rest, which is a relaxed and regenerative state of calm while awake. In this article we’ll explore what it means to enter a deep state of parasympathetic relaxation, why you need to make sure you know how to relax, and finally how to actually enter that state.

The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

First and foremost, let’s get a basic understanding of these two aspects of the nervous system and how they interact with one another. 

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): 

The sympathetic nervous system is a branch of the autonomic nervous system responsible for the body's rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations, often termed the "fight or flight" response. It mobilizes the body's resources for emergency situations by increasing heart rate, redirecting blood flow to muscles, and releasing stored energy, thereby preparing the body to confront or flee from perceived threats. The sympathetic nervous system can become activated in the face of physical or psychological stressors.

Some examples include during exercise (whether voluntary or involuntary), before a big presentation, arguing with a spouse, working on a tough assignment for work, or even walking in the woods. 

The sympathetic nervous system primarily evolved to stimulate physical activity in the face of imminent danger. For example, to escape from a predator or while hunting (both highly stressful situations). When a human in the wild subsequently escapes danger, sympathetic activation subsides and the parasympathetic system activates. After escaping an acute physical stressor, the liver begins metabolizing cortisol and epinephrine removing stress hormones from the bloodstream, therefore allowing the mind and body to relax.

In the post ancient era and especially during modern times however, the sympathetic nervous system is increasingly activated by non-physical stressors such as psychological stress and environmental toxins. Examples of psychological stress can include a stressful situation at work, relationship issues, or even just getting stuck in traffic. When the sympathetic nervous system is turned on it pumps out stress hormones preparing you for physical activity. Without a physical outlet, those hormones effectively build up and become stuck in your body. 

Environmental stressors include non native EMF’s, unhealthy food, toxins in our water, and pollution, which likewise activate the sympathetic nervous system. When your body is constantly exposed to low grade stressors, either physiological ones walking around with you in your head, or air pollution continuously entering through your lungs, your body never has the opportunity to enter states of non sleep deep rest, or even deep sleep for that matter.  

The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS):

The parasympathetic nervous system is commonly referred to as the “rest and digest” mechanism. When the PNS is activated your body releases neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine that lower heart rate, promote smooth function of the intestines, and relax muscles. A well functioning PNS is crucial for developing equanimity, staying calm, and helping your body recover. Overactivation of the sympathetic system prevents the activation of the PNS and is associated with many chronic diseases like hypertension, heart disease, insomnia, metabolic syndrome, as well as depression and anxiety disorders. 

Basically, overactivation of the SNS leads to chronic stress. The PNS on the other hand plays a key role in counteracting the body's stress response, by promoting relaxation and recovery. This helps to prevent the negative health effects associated with chronic stress, such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, and sleep disorders. It also helps promote healing, longevity, and antiaging.

People often try to activate the PNS through practices like breathwork, meditation, yoga, or relaxing massages. While there may be some benefit to these practices, they rarely get to the root of the problems causing SNS over-activation. At FP, we promote addressing and resolving the fundamental root cause of a problem as opposed to treating symptoms. Exercise, for example, releases “feel good chemicals” that can help decrease stress, temporarily improve well being, and even temporarily decrease pain via endorphins - hormones that act as natural painkillers. Of course, exercise is crucial for overall health, but that does not mean it should be used to cover up negative emotions or otherwise pressing problems. Most people in fact use practices like breathwork, meditation, yoga, or relaxing massages to superficially feel better, subconsciously coping with their problems, as opposed to actually solving them. This is why at FP, we commonly say exercise is the most abused anxiety drug on the planet. 


So, how can you actually enter states of non sleep deep rest without depending on exogenous substances or outside factors? 

  1. Optimize Your Environment

    • This involves optimizing your nutrition, sleep and light environment, eliminating environmental toxins, maintaining healthy relationships, and getting in nature. 
    • Giving your body what it needs to thrive will allow it to rest and exit the sympathetic state, knowing that it is safe and no longer under attack.

  2. Address Root Causes
    • Whether psychological or physical, managing and eventually eliminating chronic stress requires resolving the underlying factor causing the stress
    • Once you address and eliminate underlying root causes, your body will stop sending stress signals, allowing your parasympathetic nervous system to turn on.


How Your Body Can Get In The Way 

If your body has a lot of movement imbalances and muscular asymmetries, it will be significantly more difficult for your body to relax. Muscle imbalances cause certain muscle groups to hold on to tension even when they’re not under stress. While relaxing massages can help, the only permanent solution is to resolve your movement dysfunctions. Improving your movement dysfunctions will help balance out your structure, allowing your muscles to relax, activating the PNS. Shifting effectively between the sympathetic and parasympathetic state is crucial, but if your body is mangled in a way that muscles literally cannot let go of tension, you will never be able to truly relax no matter how much you meditate or how calm you are mentally. For the parasympathetic state to kick in, your muscles need to be relaxed. If your muscles can’t relax due to postural asymmetries, your body thinks a threat is still present, keeping you in a fight or flight state. 

From our perspective at functional patterns, one of if not the most crucial aspect to triggering a parasympathetic state is to create balance within your body.


A well functioning autonomic nervous system involves a healthy activation of the stress response and subsequent smooth transition into a parasympathetic state. When your body has the resources it needs, your mind responds to stress with equanimity, and your body is in a state of relative peace, you will not need to utilize techniques like breathwork or relaxing massages to trigger relaxation and enter non sleep deep rest. Instead, your body will naturally shift from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic response without much effort at all.

Back to blog