Relaxation and stress are almost antonyms. The stress response and relaxation response seem to be two opposite mechanisms in our body. In our modern way of life stress and relaxation should be addressed more since stress-related issues are the number one reason for GP visits. Workplace stress, a fast-paced life, bad eating habits, a tight schedule, daily commuting, or other pressure can all contribute to high-stress levels in our lives. Stress, however, is a natural response of our body, which in the past enabled us to survive in nature, where we had to flee from predators or hunt and capture prey. The stress response is still here, but stressors are now more camouflaged. Instead of being exposed to danger for short periods of time (high-stress levels), today a "threat" is present throughout our workday (lower levels of consistent stress).
So why is relaxation important?
We are all familiar with the feeling of being anxious or stressed out. We all feel the need to relax in stressful situations. The body is signaling us to eliminate the stress response. This relaxation urge has a reason because stress causes numerous negative effects on our overall health.
The stress response or the fight-or-flight response increases sympathetic nervous system activity. It prepares the muscles by causing blood to flow from the abdomen to the extremities, the heartbeat increases, and the lungs expand in preparation for either fighting or fleeing. Adrenalin gives us strength and noradrenaline is released to motivate us to act.
Stressful life events have been linked to sudden cardiac death, premature birth and birth complications, diabetes, and overall susceptibility to illness. Stress also plays a role in autoimmune diseases, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, chronic pain, and a range of other medical and psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, etc). With all of these disorders, it is believed that the effect of stressful life events on morbidity and mortality is caused by over activation of the fight-or-flight response.
Stress is bad, but can relaxation help?
Relaxation to fight the stress response is obviously necessary. Our body, fortunately, holds a relaxation response mechanism, which lowers stress symptoms, restores our body's harmony, refreshes our mind, fights anxiety and depression, lowers blood pressure, and even induces gene expression.:
- It helps:
- premenstrual syndrome
- irritable bowel syndrome
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- panic disorders
- chronic tension headaches
- hyperactivity in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- and many more
The relaxation response fights stress, but the relaxation we get from watching television or listening to relaxation music is not sufficient. The relaxation response is profoundly higher when using a relaxation technique, during mediation, or during some forms of prayer. The research on the relaxation response has been around for some time and many positive effects of using a relaxation response have been identified.
The relaxation response
The relaxation response has a calming effect on a person and is the "opposite" of a stress response. Actually, the "rest and digest" phase of the relaxation response is also a natural process, but is, as already mentioned, more profound during relaxation. Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School hypothesizes that the relaxation response is hypothalamically triggered and that it is an inborn counterbalancing mechanism to the stress response.
The relaxation response model is now widely used to explain the therapeutic effects of the relaxation response on various health problems. Literature reviews generally concur that all relaxation response techniques are characterized by reduced stress hormones and reduced central nervous system activity in the form of measurable brain wave changes. Regular elicitation of the relaxation response not only appears to mitigate the effects of the stress response but has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of many health problems, including musculoskeletal disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular disorders, and others, including stabilizing blood sugars in diabetics, reducing nausea associated with chemotherapy, reducing the severity of arthritis and insomnia, and also reducing hostility and anxiety.
What are the benefits of eliciting a relaxation response?
As mentioned above relaxation has many positive changes on our health. Many of the positive effects are currently being researched and many more still remain to be researched. However, there are some positive effects reported by people practicing certain relaxation techniques, which relax us and trigger a relaxation response strong enough to affect our body and mind:
- Reduces anxiety attacks
- Builds self-confidence
- Increases serotonin which influences mood and behavior. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, headaches, and insomnia.
- Enhances energy, strength, and vigor
- Helps keep blood pressure normal
- Reduces stress and tension
- Creates a state of deep relaxation and a general feeling of wellbeing
- Helps with P.M.T.
- Increases concentration and strengthens the mind
- Helps reduce heart disease
- Helps with weight loss
How to use relaxation so it will benefit me?
With every change in life, we need motivation, time, and effort. The best way is to find an autogenic course, a meditation course, or something that will have an organized and motivational approach for you to get going and not forget the new habit in a week or two.
Relaxation has to be done 3 or at least 2, times per day in order to stop the stress response and start a relaxation response during the day. Three times during the day is the golden rule. More, however, is not advisable, because the relaxation response needs to be controlled, and too much of it can have uncomfortable effects for some people.
The secret of relaxation against stress is its long-term practice. Consistent practice over a longer period of time changes our average physiology and makes us think and act differently since we are more relaxed overall.