How do you know how relaxed you are? For the past while I’ve found myself asking that question, as well as a related question “Can I be even more relaxed than I am at the moment?“.

Short of measuring certain chemicals in the body, or maybe even in spite of that, a person’s level of relaxation is a subjective experience – a felt sense more than anything else.

After these questions started to appear in my consciousness I heard about research which finds that a person’s normal level of relaxation is largely determined very early on in their life. This is known as the baseline cortisol level.

“A large body of evidence now shows that your baseline cortisol level, the thermostatic position to which you return when a threat has passed, is set in early childhood. Having a depressed mother who does not respond to your needs or receiving unresponsive daycare as a baby or toddler, create a permanent insecurity that becomes electrochemically enshrined as abnormally high or low baseline cortisol levels.

However, the latest evidence shows that the thermostat is also set prenatally. Several groups of children have been followed from before birth to late childhood. At seven to ten, those whose mothers were stressed or anxious years before, in pregnancy, were significantly more likely to have ADHD symptoms, behavioural problems and anxiety.”

It seems to me that it would follow that if a person had a higher than normal baseline cortisol level, then their sense of when they’re “quite relaxed” would be different physiologically from another person with a lower baseline cortisol level also feeling “quite relaxed”. The first person would be on higher alert than the second person.

I have also heard anecdotally that people with a high baseline cortisol level can feel uncomfortable or uneasy in a low stimulus environment (i.e. a quiet or calm environment), and act in a way that will bring the environment to a state that matches their baseline cortisol level, like start an argument for instance. At the conscious level the argument would seem “real” until it was reflected upon afterwards. At the unconscious level the behaviour was just a strategy for regaining homeostatis.

The questions that arise from this are “How fixed is the baseline cortisol level?“, and “If the baseline can be changed, why would I want to change it?“. While more research is required to be categorical, the new understandings coming from neurobiology show that brain structure is not as static as once believed, which has implications for the neuroendocrine system – enough to satisfy me that the baseline can change. Why might this be useful? Regular relaxation practise forges and strengthens new neuronal pathways and connections by lowering activity in the limbic system and providing greater access to the prefrontal cortex. This provides a person with enhanced abilities for coping and adapting to stressful situations. While this alone is a valid reason, this improved access to the prefrontal cortex results in better concentration, creativity, orientation, abstracting ability, judgment, and problem solving ability. Now there’s a compelling reason to relax!

Here is a relaxation technique I read recently…

“If you combine yawning with slow stretching and gentle stroking of your arms and hands, you’ll enter a very deep state of relaxation in 60 seconds or less.”

… and I’m a big fan of the 7-11 breathing technique. Breathe in for a count of 7 and out for a count of 11, repeat as often as you remember. This technique has personally been of great benefit.

RelaxingBe well,


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