We are all familiar with the "fight or flight response" that helped our ancestors escape from dangerous situations. Faced with a perceived threat, such as a crisis at work or a phone call notifying you that your in-laws are arriving in an hour for an unexpected visit, your body releases a flood of hormones. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and you experience a temporary burst of energy.
This reaction usually subsides in 30 to 60 minutes, but in our busy modern world, we often experience one stressful situation after another, with little time to recover. Prolonged stress contributes to many health problems, including a weakened immune system, heart disease, digestive disorders, and depression.
The "relaxation response" is a physical state of deep rest that changes the way your body reacts to emotion and stress. It occurs naturally when you are engrossed in something that you enjoy, such as playing music, bicycling, or shooting hoops. There are many ways to consciously trigger the relaxation response. Experiment and develop techniques that work for you. Begin by identifying the times when you feel most relaxed, then try some of the methods below to help you learn to deliberately relax. As you become more aware of your mental and physical states throughout the day, you will have more control over your stress levels.
- Meditation and chanting -Meditation and chanting have been used for centuries as a relaxation technique. Take 10 minutes to relax, breathe regularly, and repeat a word that does not have any emotional associations. When your mind wanders, keep coming back to that word.
- Prayer - Prayer helps you focus your mind on something outside your current situation, and allows your body to relax.
- Repetitive motion - Repetitive physical activity, such as jogging, working out on an elliptical, hitting tennis balls, or swimming, triggers relaxation and releases endorphins. Hobbies like knitting, coloring, and sewing have a similar effect.
- Yoga - Yoga teaches you to concentrate on breathing and muscle relaxation, and to be aware of your body.
- Mindfulness - Mindfulness is the practice of living in the moment, being fully aware of your physical motions as well as your thoughts and feelings as you go through your daily activities.
- Conscious muscle relaxation - Practice tensing and then relaxing various muscle groups, including your tongue.
- Deep breathing - Deep breathing can be done anywhere, any time. Concentrating on breathing not only takes your thoughts away from a stressful situation; it inundates your body with refreshing oxygen.
- Massage and acupuncture - Most of us do not have a masseuse on call, but a variety of electronic devices can give your tense shoulders and back a quick, relaxing massage. Regular massages or acupuncture sessions help to relieve tension.
- Puzzles and games - Word games, jigsaw puzzles, word searches, math and logic puzzles all help to direct your thoughts away from worry and anxiety.
Once you have found relaxation techniques that work for you, you can incorporate them throughout the day. For example, you can take a short walk outside your office and refocus by enjoying the beauty around you, listen to music in your car, or practice mindfulness while preparing a meal. When you feel stress building, take a moment to distance yourself with some deep breathing.
Studies have found that setting 10 minutes aside every day for a conscious relaxation practice has powerful health benefits, including lowering blood pressure. Regular, conscious triggering of the relaxation response induces anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory changes that counteract the effects of stress on the body.
Learn more about the relaxation response:
Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response
Learn to counteract the physiological effects of stress. Marilyn Mitchell M.D. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/heart-and-soul-healing/201303/dr-herbert-benson-s-relaxation-response)
What Mindfulness Can Do for You. WebMD. (https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/what-is-mindfulness#1)