RX for Stress: The Relaxation Response
Relaxation Counteracts Effects of Chronic Stress
The experience of relaxation is essential to counteract the harmful effects of chronic stress on the body. Through the regular practice of relaxation techniques, one can begin to reverse this cumulative, damaging proceess, and engage the body's incredible potential for self-healing.
Herbert Benson, M.D., Harvard Professor and stress reduction specialist, first coined the phrase "Relaxation Response" in the early 1970s to describe the physiological and mental changes that occur when one consciously relaxes. In The Wellness Book he writes that the relaxation response is "a physiological state characterized by a slower heart rate, metabolism, rate of breathing, lower blood pressure, and slower brain wave patterns."
Here are some of the beneficial changes that occur when your body is in the relaxation response:
Heartbeat and respiration are slowed.
Oxygen consumption is markedly reduced.
The expiration of carbon dioxide drops.
Blood pressure becomes stable.
Blood lactate levels (which some researchers believe are associated with anxiety attacks) decline steeply.
Stress Management Techniques
There are many tested techniques which encourage this state of profound rest and release. We will describe the most important of these skills, and give you practical instruction on how to do them.
1. Rhythmic, Deep, Diaphragmatic Breathing
The first and most important stress reduction tool is "right under your nose" and as close as your breath. When you focus on slow, deep breathing, the inhalation fills your lungs and causes your lower belly to expand as the diaphragm drops downward into the softness of your relaxed belly.
Try it right now:
Relax your body and release any signs of tension. Allow your tongue and jaws to relax. Drop your shoulders away from your neck. Notice your breathing just as it is. Then take a deep, full breath, allowing the breath to move all the way down into the lower belly. It is helpful to imagine that there is a small balloon in the belly. As you breathe in, let that balloon gently inflate. As you breathe out, feel how the balloon gently deflates.
Take in several of these slow, gentle, deep breaths. Then begin to notice that there is a slight pause that naturally occurs at the end of each exhalation. Allow yourself to wait here without rushing to take the next in-breath. Let the next inhalation surface when your body is ready to welcome it.
Enjoy the soothing tranquility of the pause. Float peacefully in the silence between outbreath and inbreath, letting the breath happen by itself.
If you are just learning diaphragmatic breathing, it can be helpful to begin by lying on your back with your knees bent. In this position, you can more easily feel how the belly rises with inhalation and falls with exhalation. You can also place your hands on your abdomen and let yourself breathe into their warmth, feeling how the hands rise with in-breath and fall with out- breath.
Another great way to find deep belly breath is to lie on your belly. In this position, the only way you can breathe is diaphragmatically!
Finally, it can sometimes be helpful to let yourself sigh out loud with the exhale. Sounding is a useful way to let go of stress and tension.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing has a profound effect on the body. Just three minutes of soft-belly breathing can shift your body out of stress response mode into the relaxation response!
2. Body Scan
A guided body scan - which seeks to find and release muscular
tensions - promotes deep relaxation, as most of us carry
unnecessary tightness in some of our muscles. The location of
chronic muscle tension can vary from person to person.
In a body scan, you move your attention into different parts of your body and release any felt sensations of tension or discomfort. With practice, you can become more aware of your tension and find ways to release it. Letting go of physical tension promotes soothing and a calm, tranquil mind.
Try a "mini-body scan" right now as you are reading.
Start with deep, relaxed breathing. Then when you are ready, move your attention sequentially through your body, starting at your head and slowly moving down to your toes. Within each section of your body, pause a moment and scan for tightness, tension, or chronic pain. Begin to allow yourself to let go of any discomfort or tension that you notice.
You can also visualize sending the warmth of your in-breath into the discomfort, and then, with the out-breath, release and dissolve the tension.
Physical relaxation - the release of muscular tension - in the body promotes the relaxation response. Your heartrate, breathing and metabolism slow and your blood pressure becomes lower. Your mind becomes tranquil and relaxed, free of anxiety - and is no longer sending the signals that release the stress hormones to flood throughout your body.
As you are learning these methods, or if you want a more structured experience it is often helpful to work with a teacher or to use a guided meditation CD. This will help you to stay focused on your breath and to pay attention to parts of your body which might otherwise be overlooked in the body scan.
My new 2-CD set, The Alchemy of Peace and Love, contains a detailed body scan and relaxation meditation, with soothing music to help the relaxation process.
3. Centering Meditation
In centering meditation, we focus our attention on a word or phrase to enhance the sense of relaxation while breathing deeply, slowly and evenly. The words you choose can have deep personal meaning, be neutral or simply be pleasing sounds.
One approach with this kind of structured meditation is to say one word or phrase to yourself as you breathe in and another as you breathe out. Here are some examples for you to try right now:
As you breathe in, mentally say to yourself: At
As you breathe out, mentally say to yourself: Peace
With the inhale, saying: Let
With the exhale, saying: Go
Breathing in: Deep
Breathing out: Slow
Another way to use centering meditation is to repeat the word or phrase each time you breathe out. Here are some examples of words or phrases you might repeat to yourself in this way:
You can also practice centering meditation by counting breaths. To do this, simply count each time you breathe out, You can count up to ten and start over again. When you lose track of the count, start over again at 1.
If thoughts, feelings or distractions arise, just let them pass on by and gently bring your attention back to the repetitive word, phrase, or counting.
4. The Practice of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the discovery of what the essayist, Henry David Thoreau, referred to as the "bloom of the present moment." This practice can provide an experience of the relaxation response as you learn to be in the present with non-judgmental, moment to moment awareness. It allows you to become centered and fully engaged in your life as it unfolds.
Mindfulness can be practiced formally or informally. In the formal practice of mindfulness, you start with attention on the physical ensations that come with breathing. That is followed by a widening of focus as you begin to be aware of sounds, sensations, thoughts, experiences or feelings. As you become aware of what is within you and around you, you can learn to consider and embrace what is present without judgment, without trying to change it or move away from it.
Mindfulness is best practiced with awareness of the breath. As you breathe, you observe the thoughts or feelings that arise without reacting to them. Then, using the rhythm of your breath, simply name and acknowledge what you observe, and continue focusing on the breath. In this way, the breath becomes an ongoing anchor to the present moment, and the interruptive thought or feeling fades from awareness.
This process has been likened to sitting on the bank of a stream, focusing on the breath. As a leaf or a stick floats by, it enters conscious awareness. The leaf is observed, noted, and then it floats down the stream out of view. The observer returns to the focus on the breath.
Some examples are:
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I am sad (or happy, worried, afraid, etc.)
Breathing out, I am still sad, etc.
With this approach, we stop thinking about what has triggered the emotion and simply name and breathe it.
A less formal approach to mindfulness involves bringing your full awareness to any task in which you are engaged, or to any moment that is occurring in your day. Whether you are eating, walking, driving, or getting dressed, you can proceed with the task or pleasure at hand, being fully absorbed in it while maintaining the awareness of your breathing. You can engage your senses fully and savor sensations that you notice.
Breathing in, I know that I am taking a shower.
Breathing out, I hear the rushing sounds of the water.
Breathing in, I notice the sensation of the warm water on my body.
Breathing out, I see the swirling patterns of steam.
With this informal approach - bringing mindful awareness to what is happening in the moment - we cease the stress-inducing habit of multi-tasking and allow ourselves to be fully engaged in what is at hand. Only then can we be fully alive -- present to our lives!
5. Visualization or Guided Imagery/Meditation
Visualization and Guided Meditation is a powerful, creative and engaging way to soothe yourself and move into the state of deep rest and relaxation. It is a powerful tool for changing your life. Through visualization you can intentionally use your imagination to change your behavior, help your mind and body to heal, and alter the way you feel.
In her book, Staying Well With Guided Imagery, Belleruth Naparstek says that Guided Imagery is "a kind of directed, deliberate daydreaming, . . . a safe and effective method of utilizing your sensory imagination." This helps you relax so that your mind and body may rest and recover from the ravages of chronic stress.
Imagery works because your body doesn't fully distinguish between evocative, sensory images and real events. Therefore, when one is in a state of deep relaxation, the images we choose to focus on can be potent and real to the body.
One way to start the practice of visualization is to use an audio CD, either one that is professionally produced or your own recording of a chosen meditation script. You can also practice on your own by bringing to mind an image that you find relaxing -- a soothing image of a favorite place or a happy experience. Breathe slowly and deeply as you use all of your imaginal senses to create and savor your chosen image.
My new 2-CD set, The Alchemy of Peace and Love, is a visualization and guided meditation, accompanied by original, soothing music to help the relaxation process.
6. Walking Meditation
A slow, mindful walk helps to center and relax you. Walking Meditation is practicing mindfulness and meditation while walking - a kind of stillness in motion. A wonderful book on walking meditation is The Long Road Turns to Joy by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Here are some suggestions for walking meditation:
Walk slower than your usual pace. As you walk, notice your breath. See if you can enjoy each step - walking to walk rather than walking to arrive at some destination.
Feel the nourishment of each inhalation; with each exhalation, let go of tension in your shoulders, as you also let go of burdensome worry.
Be aware of all the sensations in your body. Notice the feel of your feet as they make contact with the ground. Feel the sensation as the heel of one foot strikes the ground and the toes of the other foot begin to lift off.
Feel the inter-related movements in the motion of walking: shifting the center of gravity forward as you lean into the next step; pushing off with the toes of the rear foot as you swing the foot forward; contacting the ground with your heel. Notice how the weight of your body is focused on different areas of the load-bearing foot, moving from heel to ball of the foot to the toes.
Give your focused attention to all the sensations of walking in your feet, your legs and your carriage. As humans, we've invested a lot of evolutionary time in learning to walk upright. It is a complex and amazing phenomenon -- allow yourself to marvel at it!
Blend together awareness of your breath, your body's movement and the peace and beauty of the present moment. See if you can fully be with each step, each breath. If you can do it for one step, one cycle of breath, you can do it for the next and the next and the next.
As you breathe in, take a step and say to yourself "Just." As you breathe out,take another step and say "This."
You can also step to the words,"present moment, only moment." Using words and phrases such as these will help you to stay centered and present in the now.
7. Meditation in Motion: Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga
There are other ways of creating the experience of inner stllness through posture and motion. When you practice any of these movement meditations you benefit from motion coupled with awareness of the breath. Breath is the key to mindful movement and the bridge between the body and the mind.
Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese mind-body practice made up of a series of slow, fluid movements and coordinated breathing. It provides a host of health benefits to the practitioner. Some of these are: enhanced balance and muscle strength, improved aerobic capacity, greater coordination, relief of stress, stronger immune system, and a sense of well-being. When you practice Tai Chi, you are enhancing the flow of internal "chi" or vital life energy, and this provides health and wellness benefits.
Qigong is an ancient Chinese healing art and is also a form of alternative Chinese medicine which blends together breathing, meditation, and gentle slow rhythmic movement. When practiced regularly, it elicits all of the components of the relaxation response while ehnancing balance and flexibility. As with Tai Chi, Qigong facilitates the smooth flow of "chi" throughout the meridian pathways of the body.
By increasing stamina, improved blood circulation, enhanced immune function, flexibility, relaxation and overall quality of life through the combination of movement, meditation and breath regulation that is Qigong, you encourage and accelerate the healing process.
In China, it is estimated that 200 million people practice Qigong everyday. Because Qigong can be used by the healthy as well as the severely ill, it is one of the most broadly applicable systems of self-care in the world.
Yoga is an ancient system of movement and philosophy based on teachings that began in India an estimated 5,000 years ago. Most people in the West are more familiar with the physical form of yoga, a system of physical postures designed to create proper alignment in your body.
The physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation practices of yoga have been proven to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, regulate heart rate, and even retard the aging process. Yoga practice increases flexibility and coordination, releases muscle tension, and enhances tranquility. It is an excellent way to develop body awareness and elicit the Relaxation Response.
You can experiment with movement meditation right now as you sit in your chair! Slowly stretch through your upper body by extending up through the spine as you read these words. Let your shoulders drop away from your neck. Feel the grace and strength in your sitting posture. Relax your eyes and drop your tongue onto the floor of the mouth. Soften your jaw. Slowly raise your arms from your sides and extend them over your head as you inhale. Then, slowly lower your arms as you exhale. Repeat that motion with awareness of your breathing three times. After you have finished, what do you notice?
We unwittingly elicit the Stress Response in our bodies through holding chronic muscle tension; through anxiety, worry, and catastrophic thinking; through lack of exercise and proper sleep; through a hectic, fast-paced stressful lifestyle. The Stress Response leads to a compromised immune system, greater vulnerability to disease, and to more rapid aging.
The antidote to the Stress Response is -- the Relaxation Response, which undoes the harmful effects that result from the body being chronically "revved-up", as if to fight or flee from danger.
Take a little time, today, to practice one or more of the relaxation techniques described in this article. Twenty minutes of Relaxation Response per day can reverse the effects of chronic stress. Give yourself this gift -- you'll be glad you did.