It’s crazy how much negative impact stress has on us these days. According to research by the American Psychological Association the number of people who regularly experience physical symptoms, caused by stress, is at a whopping 77% (1)!
The annual cost to employers in stress related health care and missed work sits at a staggering $300 billion and it doesn’t seem to be getting better any time soon as 48% of people report feeling that their stress has increased over the past five years.
How Stress Happens
At its core, stress is related to fear. It’s a natural response that has helped us humans as a species to survive. Fear triggers the fight or flight response in which the part of the brain, called the hypothalamus, tells the sympathetic nervous system to ‘kick into gear’.
When this happens your body is flooded with epinephrine, norepinephrine and dozens of other hormones that make your body speed up, tense up and become fully alert.
Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible, your blood is redirected to major muscle groups, your blood glucose levels increase and your smooth muscle relaxes in order to allow more oxygen in the lungs.
A pretty awesome response if you’re about to fight or run away from a saber-toothed tiger! The problem is that we’re very rarely in this situation in modern society and our bodies have yet to adapt to this new reality.
When you’re 10 minutes late to an important meeting and you can’t find your car keys, your body is still going to view this as an immediate threat to your life and prepare you in the same way it did when prehistoric beasts were looming in the bushes.
This is a major problem, especially when you’re chronically in the fight-or-flight response. Over-exposure to the stress hormones can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes. Health problems include anxiety, depression, digestive problems, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.
How to Heal Yourself With the Relaxation Response
The opposite reaction of fight-or-flight is called the ‘Relaxation Response’. This term was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson who is a Professor and Founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute.
The response is defined as your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.
According to Benson’s research (2), regularly practicing the Relaxation Response can be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders.
Recent studies have found that practices, such as the one Benson suggests, result in lower heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption. They also alleviate symptoms associated with a number of different conditions such as hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, infertility, cancer, anxiety and even ageing.
5 Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response
Set aside 15 minutes every day, ideally the same time every day, to practice the relaxation response. Practicing in the morning is a great way to ensure some undisrupted ‘alone time’ while the world is still asleep.
Drink a glass of water and then follow these steps:
1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Close your eyes.
2. Relax all of your muscles. Start with your feet and move up through your body to your face muscles. Keep them all deeply relaxed.
3. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breath and let it take care of itself. Each time you exhale say the word ‘one’ to yourself. When distractions occur, which undoubtedly they will, gently move your focus back to the word ‘one’. If you have to do this 100 times, that’s okay. Just keep going.
4. Repeat for 10 minutes. After you have finished sit quietly for a couple minutes with your eyes closed and then with your eyes open.
5. Don’t worry. If you weren’t able to achieve a deep level of relaxation, there’s no need to become anxious. Keep a positive attitude and relaxation will occur at its own pace.
If you want, you can replace the word ‘one’ with something else. Dr. Benson suggests choosing any soothing, sweet-sounding word, preferably with no meaning or association, in order to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts.
With practice, the relaxation response will come with little effort. Enjoy it and remember:
“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”
- Sydney J. Harris