An Answer to Stress? The Relaxation Response

Stress and Inducing the relaxation response -  small.jpg

Up to 60-90% of doctor's appointments are stress related.  This is a huge percentage.  How much is stress affecting your life?

I never realized how much stress was affecting me.  I thought this was just life.  You rush from one thing to another and try to get through the day and you do it again the next day.  I had no idea how stressed I was on a daily basis. Once, I was asked by a friend if I was stressed and my answer was, what do I have to be stressed about?  I have a good job, a great family, healthy kids.  Life is busy but I can handle it all.  Well, I was handling it all, and I was chronically stressed the whole time and was totally oblivious to it. 

I have pretty severe allergy and sinus issues.  Did you know that stress produces histamine?  Histamine is what your body is reacting to with allergies.  So by reducing stress, you can reduce histamine, thus possibly reduce allergy symptoms.  I have found that reducing stress has greatly benefited me, therefore, I wanted to share some information about stress and the relaxation response.

Did you know that your body doesn't know the difference between the threat of being chased by a lion or the threat of being late for work?  It's all stress and your body sends hormones (signals) out to every cell in your body that triggers your fight or flight response.  Stress shuts down your immune system, your digestion slows, stress can give you a headache, rapid breathing, stress hormones tighten flood vessels which can raise your blood pressure, it causes your liver to release extra glucose into your bloodstream.  Over time the release of extra glucose can put you at risk for type 2 diabetes.  Chronic stress over time may affect you emotionally and can lead to depression.  The fight or flight response was put in place by your body to help protect you.  However, over time these reactions to stress can lead to chronic issues and diseases.  "Dis-ease" means lack of ease.  We could all use more ease or relaxation in our life.  

An answer to help adding more ease back into our lives is the relaxation response.   The relaxation response engages the parasympathetic nervous system's "tend and mend" or "rest and digest state."  "Herbert Benson, MD of Harvard Medical School and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered the relaxation response's power to reduce stress in the 1960s...Today, scientists have shown that such practices lower hearts rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption, and they alleviate the symptoms associates with a vast array of conditions, including hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, infertility, cancer, anxiety even aging...His latest research, published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE (July 2), suggests, that practicing the relaxation response can actually lead to genomic activity changes.  In the study, his team of researchers looked at how the relaxation response affected each of the body's 40,000 genes and found that, compared with a control group, those who regularly used the relaxation response induced anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory changes that counteracted the effects of stress on the body."

So just what is the relaxation response? The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (the opposite of fight or flight).  Benson explains "Once or twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes, sit in a relaxed position, eyes closed, and repeat a word or sound as you breathe.  Some people use such words as love or peace.  Others say traditional prayers.  If your thoughts stray -- which is normal and expected -- just refocus on the word repetition.  There are scores of other ways to summon the relaxation response as well, said Benson.  Anything that breaks the train of everyday thought will evoke this physiological state."  [Quoted material from the American Psychological Association, The Power of the relaxation response, Sara Martin, 2008, Vol 39, No. 9]

Below is a list of mindful activities that may help induce the relaxation response for you.  While you are doing these activities, when you notice your mind wander, let that thought complete itself then refocus on your breathe and/or the activity.  Remember, "anything that breaks the train of everyday thought will evoke this physiological state."  This means you cannot obsess over the piles of laundry you are drowning in or something that your friend said that really bothered you.  When you catch yourself going down the rabbit hole, finish the thought then refocus.   Here are some ideas for you:

  • Meditation (10-20 minutes is ideal)
  • 10 minute walk with deep mindful breathing
  • A bath with deep mindful breathing
  • Yoga/Tai Chi/Qigong (make sure you are mindfully doing these practices and focusing on breath)
  • Deep breathing exercises (an example would be to focus on breathing deeply and expanding your chest and exhaling fully, or breathing in for a count of 4, holding for a count of 7 and breathing out for a count of 8)
  • Hypnosis or self-hypnosis (I love Michael Sealey's youtube videos)
  • Music
  • Praying
  • Massage
  • Body Scan/progressive muscle relaxation (start with your head and go all the way down to your toes, focusing on each area and relaxing, for example let your eyes soften and release your brow, loosen your tongue and your jaw, focus on the back of your neck and let the tension release, etc.

Even one minute of deep breathing done several times throughout the day can make a big difference.

If you would like to take additional steps to manage stress, you may want to take some time to sit down and list out your stressors.  List the stressors in one column and then make another column that includes the cause of the stress.  Make a third column for any solutions you can come up with.  After you have identified your stressors, make a list of things that fill you up.  Things that you enjoy and relax you.  The things that fill you up will help induce the relaxation response.  When your cup is full you can give from the overflow and you will not feel depleted.

Know that relaxation techniques are skills and practice will help rewire these new skills into your brain so that when life brings you lemons, your brain chooses to make lemonade.  You will remember, you will become conscious or aware of the stress and you will take steps to bring more ease into your life.  

Please note that I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice.  You should always discuss health issues, including stress, and any plans to make changes in your health care plan with your doctor.

I hope you find some of this information helpful!