Relax. Your Mind and Body Will Thank You.

Lucy Rathier, PhD

We often think of stress as a negative experience that is caused by significant events. Most would agree that life-altering events such as divorce, bankruptcy, unemployment, moving, illness, loss of a loved one, and job changes are all triggers for stress. Luckily, while these major changes are stressful, they are rare.

But there are stressors that happen much more regularly. Any day can include traffic jams, arguments with family members, living with clutter, job stress and financial worries. No wonder so many of us feel as if we have too much to do and too little time. Because these occur more frequently, it is these smaller things that often end up affecting us the most.

How stress affects us

Studies have shown a direct relationship between the number of daily hassles in a person’s life and his or her health. The higher the number of hassles, the poorer the health.

When stress levels become constant and long-lasting, it can harm the body and impair our mental performance. Stress contributes to the experience of many physical symptoms and medical conditions including headache, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, weight gain or loss, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, and diabetes. By contrast, some stress-related disorders like high blood pressure have no symptoms.

Some may try to manage stress by covering up the symptoms with alcohol, caffeine, food, or other substances. But because it does not address the underlying cause and how to better manage it, this response does not eliminate the stress.

Understanding the stress reaction

Chronic stress can have a serious impact on our psychological side too, just as it does on the body. Stress causes the body to release chemicals in high levels. These chemicals trigger the “fight or flight” response – the mind’s way of reacting to acute stress.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a vast network of nerves reaching out from the spinal cord, directly affecting every organ in the body. It has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, which have opposite effects.

The sympathetic ANS helps us deal with stressful situations by initiating an acute stress reaction. If you are driving on the highway and another car comes close to cutting you off, your sympathetic ANS kicks in. You may notice that your heart beats rapidly, your breathing quickens, your muscles tense up, and you become extremely alert. Stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, have become elevated and caused these physical reactions. It is your body’s way of protecting itself from a threat.

After the danger has passed, the parasympathetic ANS takes over, decreasing your heart and respiration rates and generally calming you down. In healthy people who manage their stress well, the two branches of the ANS maintain a balance: action followed by relaxation.

However, many people do not manage their stress as well as they could. Their sympathetic ANS stays on guard, making them unable to relax and let the parasympathetic system take over. If this situation becomes chronic, a whole variety of stress-related symptoms can follow such as feeling anxious, depressed, irritable, overwhelmed, and angry. This, in turn, can negatively affect our relationships with others.

Relaxation to manage stress

To keep our minds and bodies healthy, it is important to manage stress. That can be done through a variety of relaxation techniques. Such activities can help to move your body from stressed to relaxed.

Dr. Herbert Benson is a physician who discovered the relaxation response and its power to reduce stress in the 1960s. He said the relaxation response is “a physical state of deep rest that changes a person's physical and emotional responses to stress.” It is important to note that “relax” does not mean watching a movie or reading a book. We may find pleasure from these kinds of activities and other hobbies, but we do not achieve a true relaxation response from them.

Learning how to relax requires work! You probably will not get it right the first time, either. Achieving relaxation through any technique takes consistent practice. But like riding a bike, once you do, you’ll never forget how. Trying this practice twice daily for 10 to 20 minutes will help you gain proficiency and maintain desired results.

The steps toward relaxation

Techniques to achieve the relaxation response include diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic relaxation, visualization/guided imagery, meditation, and mindfulness. While they are all different, the techniques have one thing in common – these three steps:

1. Focus your mind on a repetitive word/phrase, breath, action, or image.

2. Adopt a passive attitude. Let go of intrusive thoughts and allow the relaxation to occur without effort.

3. Practice daily.

It is best for you to try various strategies and techniques to see which works best for reducing your stress. Studies show that progressive muscle relaxation works better for tension-type headaches. Another technique called autogenic relaxation works better for people who have migraine disorder. Otherwise, there are no findings that link a specific relaxation strategy to a medical condition.

The results of relaxation

With regular practice, you can experience reduced muscle tension and an increased sense of calmness. Research has shown that regular use of the relaxation response may help reduce the symptoms of health problems that are caused or worsened by chronic stress, such as gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, heart disease, anxiety, depression, headache, and chronic pain. Learning relaxation may also make it easier to lose weight, quit smoking, and cut down on alcohol or substance use. Many people who regularly practice relaxation strategies report experiencing increases in optimism, self-confidence, energy, productivity, assertiveness, and reduced stress.

Try any of these techniques and start living a less stressed life. 

If you'd like to try mindfulness meditation, start with this video

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