The relaxation response
In this series you’ve heard a lot about the stress response. We’ve talked about it so much that you’re all probably sick of hearing about it! It’s incredibly important that you understand how it works because this knowledge will assist you in managing your stress in a way that works for you. If you’ve been hiding under a rock these past 19 days and haven’t read anything about it, you can find it in this post and this one. The impacts of stress on our systems are so huge and it’s really important that we are able to combat them. Our health and wellbeing depend on it.
So how do we begin that process?
I’m glad you asked!
The body being the incredible machine it is, created a system that can naturally support us to tackle all this stress. And it’s all part of the autonomic nervous system. Since I’m slightly lazy, I’m just going to call it the nervous system.
A little technical information for you on the nervous system. It’s divided into 2 parts – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for getting the body ready for action. So when the amygdala does its job by making the assessment that you’re at risk, the signals that get sent to the brain stem to raise your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and so on, engage the SNS to make those things happen.
The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. It calms everything down. It returns your heart rate to normal. It lowers your blood pressure and blood sugar. So when you’re in the stress response, the PNS helps to bring you out of it.
As a demonstration of how these systems work together, think about body temperature. When it gets hot or cold outside our body temperature will either rise or lower. This is the role of the SNS. And the PNS will jump in to try to balance things out. It will make us sweat when we get too hot and will give us goosebumps when we’re too cold. You see, our body likes balance. Being out of balance is not our natural state of being. We function optimally when everything is balanced and this is called homeostasis. And we thrive on it.
So, when we’re stressed, the PNS will do everything in its power to reinstate homeostasis. And we can help it along. If we can regularly put ourselves into what is called the relaxation response, we support the PNS to bring our body and mind back into homeostasis.
Essentially, the relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. When we are stressed, everything is activated, or switched on. We are ready for action. Alert. Aware. Vigilant. And our body is jumping and ready to hit the ground running.
On the other hand, the relaxation response is just that; relaxed. This is kind of like when you are laying in bed on the way to sleep. You’re still aware of the things happening around you, but your mind and body are at rest.
So, how do we switch off the stress response and switch on the relaxation response?
We’re probably talking about this part a lot too, so brace yourself…
Yep. You got it. Breathing.
Linda talked about belly breathing in her post on stress and the role of breathing. She talked about practising by placing your hands on your chest and belly, and working on making the hand on your belly rise and fall as you breathe, pretending that you’re inflating a balloon. You may like to re-read her article to refresh your memory.
I found another article about activating the relaxation response. It talks about closing your eyes and taking deep breaths for 10 minutes while you focus on a chosen word, such as “peace” or “calm”.
If I were practicing this I would look at combining the two techniques – breathing for 10 minutes while I focused on the deep belly breaths Linda talks about. I’d love for you to give it a try and see how you go. Share your experiences in the comments below!
Remember what I said before about homeostasis? When we are chronically stressed our system gets used to it and the highly stressed state becomes our new “balance” point. So when we then try to counteract that by practicing these breathing techniques, our mind will kick in and try to stop us. It perceives this new state of calm as being out of balance, so it will do whatever it can to prevent you from focusing. You’ll have some pretty random thoughts pop into your head, you’ll find it difficult to concentrate, you’ll feel like you want to get up and run away because you’re so used to being in that “action” state.
So, here is my tip to work with this… persist. Practice. Be kind to yourself. Your brain is simply doing its job by trying to stay balanced. Gently refocus on your objective (the focus word of your choice or your hand rising and falling on your belly). Say to yourself something like, “thanks mind for doing your job, I’ll give you a chance to play soon, but for right now I’m focusing on this breathing”.
And if you do find yourself continually distracted, that’s fine. Go with it. Just start with the breathing for 30 seconds. For some people this is enough to begin with. And then gradually build it up in 30 second increments. Pretty soon you’ll be able to focus for 10 minutes like a pro!
If 10 minutes seems like forever (which it will if you’re just starting out), try using an alarm so you don’t have to think about how long you’ve been practicing. However, a loud ringing at the end of the time will likely put you right back into the stress response! So try a gentle sound such as a soft tinkle or wind chime effect.