5 Reasons Your Brain (and You) Can’t Relax

Tammin Sursok

“I almost don’t feel comfortable being relaxed.” That’s what “Pretty Little Liars” actress Tammin Sursok recently told Dr. Daniel Amen in an episode of Scan My Brain, a video series featuring high-profile individuals who share their brain SPECT scans and open up about their mental health. In the past, a previous doctor suggested that Sursok try Xanax. “I tried a half of one and it felt so foreign to me, that feeling of being relaxed, that I did not feel comfortable,” the actress said. “If I feel too relaxed, I get more anxiety.”

Sursok’s reaction is more common than you might imagine. Perhaps you can relate. When you have a free hour in your day, are you able to kick your feet up and read a great book for pleasure, listen to music that makes you happy, or just let your mind wander? Or do you feel antsy about “wasting time” and throw some clothes in the washing machine, grab a book that you should read for work, or feel guilty about not being productive?

Why is it so hard for some people to relax? A host of common issues inside the brain might be to blame for keeping your mind spinning.

Why is it so hard for some people to relax? A host of common issues inside the brain might be to blame for keeping your mind spinning. Click To Tweet



1. Your brain wants a dopamine rush.

Some people with low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is commonly seen in people with ADD/ADHD, tend to be excitement-seeking and conflict-driven. For these people, relaxing is just another word for boring. Big thrills—whether they come from bungee jumping, taking a spontaneous road trip, or even having an argument—boost dopamine in the brain. Sursok, whose brain SPECT scans showed activity patterns typically seen in those with ADD/ADHD, says she sometimes finds herself searching for that dopamine rush by creating conflict in her close relationships. “Things will be going really well, and I’ll be having a great day with my husband and then something will trigger me, and I will go straight to getting that feeling up, getting my heart to palpitate.”

Relaxation Rx: Boost dopamine in healthier ways to reduce the need to seek excitement or conflict. You can increase the neurotransmitter naturally by eating a higher-protein, lower-carbohydrate diet and taking nutritional supplements like green tea, rhodiola, and ginseng.

2. Your emotional brain is overactive.

When the brain’s emotional centers and fear centers are overactive, it can be associated with depression and anxiety. If you have this common brain pattern, you may stay busy as a way to distract yourself from your anxious thoughts and feelings of hopelessness. When the world calms down around you, it’s like those worries and depressed moods come into sharper focus.

Relaxation Rx: Practice mental hygiene by challenging the automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that creep into your mind and prevent relaxation. Supplements that calm the emotional and fear centers of the brain include saffron, omega-3 fatty acids, and GABA. Bright light therapy and the scent of lavender may also help.

3. Your sympathetic nervous system is stuck in overdrive.

Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the fight-or-flight response that makes us feel anxious and afraid. Our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the relaxation response that counterbalances the SNS and helps us calm down after a heart-pounding incident. When the nervous system is healthy, they work in concert to help us manage stress. Chronic stress or prolonged trauma, however, can interfere with the body’s relaxation mechanism. When trauma is severe or prolonged or it leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the SNS can get stuck on, making you feel restless, anxious, panicky, hyperaroused, hypervigilant, or sleepless. If this is the case, even when you try to relax, you aren’t able to shake off those feelings.

Relaxation Rx: If the SNS is stuck on, calm it with meditation, prayer, hypnosis, guided imagery, diaphragmatic breathing, and calming supplements, such as GABA, magnesium, or theanine. For PTSD, therapeutic interventions such as EMDR may be helpful.

4. You stress about relaxation.

When relaxation is just another task on your to-do list, it can be counterproductive. And if you approach it with a perfectionist attitude, it could backfire. For example, checking your heart rate monitor every few seconds as you engage in deep breathing or meditation to see if your level is going down may actually increase feelings of anxiousness.

Relaxation Rx: If this sounds like you, don’t make relaxation a chore. Rid yourself of expectations and just breathe, take a walk, or meditate without any goals. And remember, self-care isn’t one size fits all. Try a variety of activities and hobbies to see what works for you.

5. You fuel your brain with distressing news.

If you’re hooked on watching or reading the news, you’re basically feeding your brain a steady diet of disturbing deaths, disasters, and divisive politics. You’re flooding your mind with toxic thoughts that activate the brain’s fear circuits, making you feel chronically anxious and afraid. It’s hard to relax when you’re constantly on edge and your brain is seeking out the next impending disaster around the corner.

Relaxation Rx: Limit your media consumption and subscribe to news outlets, such as the Good News Network, which specializes in highlighting the positive things that are happening in our world.

Anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Do you have any connections in the Cleveland atea?

    Comment by Jill Nelson — August 23, 2021 @ 3:10 AM

  2. This article describes me perfectly! Yes, I know, not a good thing. I will read this over and over so I can understand how to get off my roller coaster. I have constant muscle spasms and back issues simply because I cannot relax. Thank you for sending this to me. I just recently found out that I need methyl folate, which has helped me somewhat in dealing with my depression.

    Comment by Andrea Owens Schnapp — August 23, 2021 @ 3:38 AM

  3. Great article, thank you.

    Comment by Herman Schirg — August 23, 2021 @ 5:37 AM

  4. Thank you for the Good News Network referral. What a nice way to start the day. xo

    Comment by Margaret Powers — August 23, 2021 @ 6:03 AM

  5. Im really interesting to get a consult and try a new way to help myself with my panic attack and my fears ! What kind of insurance you take or how much is a consult ?

    Comment by Cinthya — August 23, 2021 @ 6:24 AM

  6. Is insurance covering any of this now?

    Comment by Rodney Barnett — August 23, 2021 @ 8:23 AM

  7. This was very informative. Thanks👍🏻

    Comment by Sandra Dickey — August 23, 2021 @ 11:36 AM

  8. Hello Jill. Amen Clinics currently has 9 locations: https://amenclinics.com/locations/. If you’re unable to travel to one of our locations, our Care Coordinators may be able to assist you with resources or referrals closer to you. For more information, please contact our Care Coordinators: https://amenclinics.com/schedule-visit/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 23, 2021 @ 12:27 PM

  9. Hello Cinthya, thank you for reaching out. We would be happy to contact you directly with more information about costs, insurance, financing options, and scheduling an appointment at 1 of our 9 clinics. We look forward to speaking with you soon

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 23, 2021 @ 12:29 PM

  10. Love this article. Definitely described me.

    Comment by Amanda — August 23, 2021 @ 6:52 PM

  11. This article fits me to a T. I have gotten so tired of people telling me to relax, I say relax isn’t in my vocabulary. Would love to relax.

    Comment by Gretchen E Gravely — August 24, 2021 @ 6:23 PM

  12. Hello Rodney, thank you for reaching out. Amen Clinics is an out-of-network provider and we do not bill insurance. We do provide a superbill containing applicable diagnosis and billing codes, which can be submitted to insurance companies for possible reimbursement. Our doctors and therapists are not affiliated with any insurance plans or networks. Please check with your insurance provider for any mental health benefits. For additional information regarding your pricing, insurance, and financing options, please contact our Care Coordinators: https://amenclinics.com/schedule-visit/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 25, 2021 @ 9:07 AM

  13. I saw myself in this where are your clinics they might help

    Comment by Bobbie Louise McKay — August 25, 2021 @ 12:21 PM

  14. Hello Bobbie Louise, Amen Clinics currently has 9 locations: https://amenclinics.com/locations/. For more information about scheduling, please contact our Care Coordinators: https://amenclinics.com/schedule-visit/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 25, 2021 @ 3:05 PM

  15. Are there any satellite testing areas close to the Canadian border [I live in Ottawa, Ontario]?

    Comment by Anne Doak — December 3, 2021 @ 6:34 AM

  16. Hello Anne, thank you for reaching out. Our closest clinic to you is in New York: https://amenclinics.com/locations/new-york-metro-area/. For more information on how we can assist you in Canada, please contact our Care Coordinators: https://amenclinics.com/schedule-visit/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — December 3, 2021 @ 6:44 PM

  17. I really liked this article. Usually the title of an article like this promises something they don’t deliver, but this was really good.

    Comment by Donna — June 29, 2022 @ 7:05 PM

  18. Wow!!! This entire article is me to a t, I can’t relax my back is constantly on fire bc I never sit down if my eyes are open I am moving and that is probably 20 hours a day and it is so annoying l. I can’t ever relax bc I feel guilty and that I have stuff to be doing when in all reality I don’t but I make lists daily to do and it is never ending… I definitely need some nutrients a brain scan and some sort of therapy apparently. Great article

    Comment by Destiny burril — January 11, 2023 @ 11:13 AM

  19. i've had GAD ffor years very severe at times. i also suffer from ptsd from being bullied when younger. i.m currently going to a self defense program that trys to get us used to our own adrinline rush ,please reccomend a self defense system that might be bettr suited for me. thanks bunches roy

    Comment by roy davis — February 21, 2023 @ 8:26 AM

  20. I love this article. It straight hits all the points. That's exactly me. I like the exact description of every point. Now i believe in psychology. The one who wrote this., really understand what's going on with us (my self and those similar to me). Because i was skeptical about it, i think i am getting worse. Some times i'll at the top, suddenly i am far down for longer time!

    Comment by Omar — June 16, 2023 @ 4:20 AM

  21. I've been curious about <a href="#">breathwork</a> /deep breathing for a while, and your article gave me the push I needed to finally try it. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience!

    Comment by Olivia Smith — November 23, 2023 @ 2:11 AM

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