Relaxation and Stress Reduction
Consider these scenarios:
- You’re about to make a phone call to ask someone out – and your roommate walks into the room. Suddenly, you feel so nervous that your hand shakes as you dial and your voice sounds strange as you say hello.
- You’re about to take a test – the professor is handing out the test sheet, and you feel your heart race and your palms sweat.
- You’re angry with a friend, but you believe your only choices are to blow it off or completely blow up. Your stomach gets tense and you feel slightly nauseous.
Each of these stress-producing situations create feelings of anxiety. Anxiety includes both a cognitive component, such as worrying about being heard while on the phone, and a physiological component, such as the resulting increased muscular tension in your hand and in your larynx. These symptoms indicate that your body is going through the “fight or flight response,” a physiological response rooted in our early beginnings of human survival.
The fight or flight response involves an exquisitely orchestrated set of biochemical changes that ready the body to respond to any perceived threat. The brain sets off an alarm, which turns on the sympathetic nervous system, causing your adrenal glands to secrete a flood of stress hormones. A chain reaction ensues. Your muscles tense, your pupils dilate, your sense of hearing and smell become acute, your diaphragm locks, your breathing and heart rate speed up, your blood clots more quickly, your perspiration increases, your lower priority functions shut down, and your blood flow is redirected away from your extremities into the larger muscles.
Our early ancestors’ survival depended on physical solutions to danger. However, social customs today tend to prevent us from fighting or fleeing, and our stressors are usually more chronic. When our bodies remain in an active state, we are more susceptible to the long-term negative effects of chronic stress. As we overproduce stress hormones we chronically shut down healthy functions such as digestion, growth, tissue repair, and responses of the immune and inflammatory systems. And the typical person usually goes through the fight or flight response from 100 to 250 times per day! It’s no wonder that chronic stress contributes to our susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases and illnesses, such as the common cold, hypertension, migraines, osteoporosis, ulcers, heart disease, diabetes, and even depression.
So how do you cope with and counteract the effects of chronic stress? That depends on the nature of your particular stressors, how you may unintentionally increase your own stress, how you cognitively appraise stress-producing situations, and how your body uniquely reacts to stress. Stress-reduction techniques are as wide-ranging as improving your nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits, learning time management, improving your communication skills, learning how to balance recreation and productivity, learning to cognitively appraise situations in ways that enhance problem solving, decreasing or eliminating your reliance on alcohol or drug use, and getting social support. You may wish to meet with one of our counselors who can help you to analyze your own unique situation and recommend how you can improve your stress management.
In addition, there is one technique that can benefit just about anyone. You can counteract the fight or flight response by harnessing your body’s natural ability to come back to a balanced state of calm by activating your parasympathetic nervous system. This can be done by inducing the Relaxation Response. Herbert Benson, M.D., the director of the Mind-Body Medical Institute at Harvard, has researched the interaction of the mind and body for 30 years. His studies have found that the Relaxation Response creates physiological changes such as decreased metabolism, heart rate, and breathing rate, in addition to distinctively slower brain waves. These changes are associated with feelings of calm and a decrease in anxiety. Interestingly, his research has found that people tend to experience an increased sense of spirituality regardless of whether or not they used a repetitive religious focus; spirituality was also associated with fewer medical symptoms. This has led him to draw from many religious traditions of the world to continue his research on the healing effects of spirituality.
The Relaxation Response
The instructions for inducing the Relaxation Response are very simple. You’ll receive the full benefits if you practice for 20 minutes per day or at least several times per week.
- Find a quiet spot: Choose a quiet room, outdoor setting, or wherever you can be alone and free from distractions.
- Assume a comfortable position: You may sit straight in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. It’s best not to lie down because you may fall asleep.
- Choose a point of focus: Select a word or sound that elicits a sense of tranquillity, such as Calm, Peace, or Relax, or, if you wish, one that is rooted in your personal religious belief system. The purpose of this mental device is to break the chain of distracting thoughts and direct your focus internally. Close your eyes, relax your muscles, and breathe normally. Repeat your word or sound silently as you exhale.
- Develop a passive attitude: When distracting thoughts come, just allow them to float away while you return to your point of focus.