Active relaxation and relaxed activation – practitioner thoughts

Just Relax!
Someone might say this to us when we are stressed or anxious… when we’re feeling uptight.
The subtext might be: “just relax because it will be ok” or “because it is not that important”
It’s unlikely to work – for us it is important, and we don’t know that it will be ok.

Ironically, if the issue is important, then it may be good to be relaxed about it – things may work out better, and be less likely to go wrong if we can be relaxed about them.

Physiologically, being anxious, angry or scared has had major advantages – our system shifts into a more primitive incisive state, in which we make decisions many times faster, we focus our physical energy and mental attention fully on this moment, on solving this problem.

The immediate cost of this changed state is loss of complexity – our slower, more sophisticated pre-frontal cortex goes offline, our gut response becomes crude to the point of being digital – the sympathetic nervous system is in charge, and the subtlety of the vagal is unavailable.

This cost is not important when faced with falling boulders or escaping prey, but it plays merry hell with our capacity as counsellors or psychotherapists with troubled clients, or as trainers holding a tricky group process, or as partners in a charged and complex argument.

We can think of relaxing in the face of complex conflict or arousal in various ways:
-The thing we’d do if only we were better therapists/partners/human beings
-Irrelevant new-age nonsense

Or we can consider it as:
-A capacity we can build
-A stretch worth trying to make

It may be possible to develop a passionate and enthusiastic commitment to being relaxed when pushed to our edges, to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs” (Kipling)

One of the core aspects it can be helpful to relax and embrace is the very experience of being discombobulated. It can be possible to relax and still maintain the urgency, fluidity and the energy of anger, fear and passion.

Analogous to how the more important something is, the more useful it is to be able to laugh about it, so the greater the emotional charge of relational difficulties, the greater the helpfulness of being relaxed can be.

We can practice keeping the sympathetic arousal response alive and connected, whilst at the same time stepping forward into relaxation. We can have access to the speed of running prey, the directness of the charging hunter, in combination with the sophistication of our complex and subtle bodymind system.

It is possible to view this as a discipline, a practice, which is different to:
-A state we must always achieve
-A yardstick to measure ourselves against
-The answer to every problem

If, as counsellor or psychotherapist, we can be emotionally activated or disturbed, and relaxed about it at the same time, we can offer a container for our clients’ disturbances which is both wider and more robust. We will actively demonstrate the possibility of disturbance being acceptable and manageable.

With a greater range of capacities online, and a relaxed attitude towards both our and our client’s emotional turmoil, we are lighter on our feet, and better equipped to attune to our client’s state and process – we can be more alive to that which happens between us.

It is possible to think of this as a particular style or relational channel within the practice of psychotherapy – one which is suited to some particular combinations of client and practitioner, rather than as a useful approach in general.
These are active ideas in process – agreement, discussion, challenge and refinement are most encouraged.

Stephen Tame 2016

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2 Responses to Active relaxation and relaxed activation – practitioner thoughts

  1. Neil says:

    Hi Stephen,
    Thanks for sharing this. In some ways we’re on a similar curve as I’m currently using yoga as my vehicle to explore narrative ( which I define as our narrative function…language, imagination, emotions etc ). To my mind embodied education or education of the affect or whatever your term requires a person instantiate the concept of ‘rest’ as an active ingredient in their practice and I define this further and what it entails. I think your use of relaxation has similar connotations however I prefer to use rest & not relaxation as a way of differentiating it from the zeitgeist of our current infatuation with mindfulness etc…it’s fairly easy for me to see the benefits of rest as being useful to people especially when they have undergone a rigorous session of yoga/therapy/work and then connect it to a set of practices which will, as you say, build capacity in various aspects of being a person….or as I say in my blurb ( when and if it ever gets written that it’s about the transformation of movement into language and action ).

  2. Alexa says:

    Hi Stephen,
    Thank you for sharing the article – although I’m not quite clear on your meaning of the term relax here – for me it isn’t possible to be relaxed and activated simultaneously- because the physiological mechanisms active in each state conflict with each other – but indo think it’s possible to notice the discombobulated/ activated parts and regulate/manage their impact so you remain centred and available , rather than distracted or overwhelmed/overc identified with what is taking place that is ‘chaotic ‘ – an acknowledgment of the ‘chaos’ before a conscious attempt to calm or remain relaxed? – I’m seeing it as a body/mind internal process taking place on many levels – that probably takes a lot of practice to cultivate – it reminds me of trying to stop a panic attack – how can you manage the symptoms without denying the experience or being thrown into a full blown attack ?
    I don’t even know if I’ve fully understood the article- but this was the thoughts that arose from reading it so I thought I’d share them with you .

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