Everyone knows what it feels like to be stressed out. We all know the feeling of a deadline looming for school with only a few hours to finish up. We all know what it feels like to be overburdened with work or the pressures that we put upon ourselves. Whether we like it or not, stress is a part of our lives.
The stress response was originally created to protect us. Before society because civilized, there was a serious danger that we might get eaten by a wild animal such as a lion or a bear. The stress response was essential for survival.
Thanks to the stress response, we experience a surge of adrenaline and cortisol, two of the stress hormones. We become much more alert- our pupils dilate, our skin becomes more sensitive to touch, our muscles become more tense and ready to move. The heart rate increases and the body is on edge, ready to fight or run away.
In the event that you were actually in the wild, this response would give you an edge if you encountered a dangerous situation.
However, we are not in the wild. We live in modern society. We are much more likely to run into an uncomfortable social situation than a wild animal. We still face a lot of stress, however.
Why do we experience so much stress?
Many of us stretch ourselves to the limit at work. According to an article in the LA times, about 80% of Americans continue to work even when they are outside of the office. Add into that the complicating factor of TV and social media and you get a life of constant noise with no time to ever wind down.
Worse yet, the stress can become cumulative. Small stresses build up little by little and eventually become a major burden on your life.
A natural solution to stress
Fortunately, we have an innate capacity to turn off the noise called the relaxation response. The acclaimed Harvard physician Dr. Herbert Benson coined this term in 1975, but the relaxation response is nothing new. In fact, people have been taking advantage of it for thousands of years.
Before I explain how to induce the relaxation response, lets look at some of the changes that the relaxation response makes in the body and why it is important to relax. Here are some changes that occur in the body when you experience the relaxation response, from the Anxiety and Social Phobia Workbook:
- Decrease in Heart Rate
- Decrease in Respiratory Rate
- Decrease in Blood Pressure
- Decrease in skeletal muscle tension
- Decrease in metabolic rate and oxygen consumption
- Decrease in analytical thinking
- Increase in energy level and productivity
- Increase in concentration and memory
- Increase in the awareness of feelings
Just how powerful is the relaxation response?
Researchers have been digging deeper into understanding why the relaxation response has such an impact on the body. To do this, they didn’t just analyze changes in heart rate, respiratory rate, etc. They went a step further and analyzed the effects that relaxation has at the level of the DNA. Some of the results have been truly fascinating.
Before we talk about the DNA, lets talk about what researchers found out about the brain. Normally, as we age, certain regions of the brain shrink. It is an expected part of the aging process. When researchers examined people who have regular relaxation practice, however, they found that those areas of the brain remained thick, challenging widely held beliefs on aging.
According to Dr. Herbert Benson in his book The Relaxation Revolution, when researchers analyzed the genes of people who had a regular relaxation practice, they found that the genes were turned on and off in a pattern that was the exact opposite of the genes that are turned on and off during the stress response.
People who did not have a regular relaxation practice did not show this pattern in their genetic activity. However, they did begin to display this pattern when they began a relaxation practice, though to a lesser extent than the people with a regular practice.
This finding is important because the DNA codes for proteins which help regulate all of the processes that occur in the body. This study shows that the body produces different proteins during the relaxation response compared to the stress response affecting all of the cells, the hormones, the brain, everything. In short, the effects of the relaxation response on the body are profound. It can affect your body down to your very genetic activity.
But how to you experience the relaxation response?
According to Dr. Herbert Benson, the relaxation response can be achieved through focused attention on something that is repetitive (such as a word, the breath, your steps… the list goes on).
Traditionally, the relaxation response was a part of everyday life, etched into how society functioned. Yoga and Tai Chi can induce the relaxation response. Meditation and prayers can also induce the relaxation response. (Though I am a huge fan of massages, there is no consensus on whether they actually produce the relaxation response as described in this article. There are other benefits of massages though).
These practices are not nearly as widespread as they once were (though they seem to be making a comeback).
Try it out for yourself
If you want to try out the relaxation response yourself, below is a video of Dr. Herbert Benson describing a simple relaxation practice that anyone can take advantage of for about 10 or 20 minutes a day. The steps to this process are as follows:
- Get in a comfortable place and in a comfortable position (I recommend simply sitting in a chair or lying down)
- Take a moment to tune into your body
- Focus of the breath
- On the exhales focus on a word of choice (such as peace, love, or a word that has meaning to you)
- If you notice your mind wandering, just say “Oh well” and go back to focusing on the breath
Don’t stop with this though. I highly recommend that you look at other practices that help with relaxation, such as yoga, deep breathing and meditation. I have found that I personally really click with some practices while others don’t work as well. You should experiment and find what works best for you.
Have you ever felt like stress was building up? What helped you out? Are there any barriers that prevent you from starting a regular relaxation practice? Let me know down in the comments below!