The stress of relaxation
Stress is easy. Anyone can get stressed. It’s an instinctive part of our make-up and goes way back into our evolutionary past, hundreds of millions of years.
Relaxation is tougher. After the stress response, the hormones priming us for fight or flight should fade away, bringing us back to our resting state. That’s the way we are made – experience stress, react, recover. The problem is that causes of stress have changed. For most people the risk of getting eaten on any given day is minimal. Unfortunately, the risk of being exposed to stress is so high as to be inevitable. Too much traffic, dodgy air conditioning, troublesome IT, annoying colleagues, money worries, queues and any number of other irritations. Two problems with these are that the fight or flight response isn’t appropriate, so we don’t “burn off” the stress hormones by responding as nature intended, and the stressors come thick and fast meaning our opportunity to return to the resting state is limited.
If we constantly face stress, our bodies adapt. We become used to elevated cortisol levels. Unfortunately, becoming used to that state means that the hormones are less effective, inflammation is more likely, bad eating habits feel like the solution to all our woes.
Active relaxation can be achieved but it takes effort and training.
Learning to relax
Activities like yoga, tai chi and qi gong tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and allow the body to relax, reducing blood pressure, slowing breathing and heart rate, reducing the prevalence of stress hormones in circulation. Classes at Louth Yoga Studio promote relaxation by reducing physical tension and tightness, and encouraging slow, deep breathing, in some cases teaching whole new breathing techniques.
Breathing, like relaxation, is one of those things we are assumed to be able to do without training and yet so many people would benefit from learning simple ways to use breath to let go of stress. Mind and body are closely intertwined, pain in one manifesting in the other. Breath links the two and can support and guide both body and mind to relaxation and stillness.
One breathing exercise to try is to lie down with the hands on the belly, fingertips just touching. Inhaling through the nose, feel the belly rise. Exhaling through the nose, allow the belly to fall under gravity, just letting the breath go. Stay focused on the sensations of air moving, the belly rising and falling. Once you are comfortable with the pattern of breathing, introduce a silent count to four on the inhalation, four on the exhalation, gently extending and equalising the in and out breaths without straining.
The Relaxation Response
The person who pioneered the idea of the Relaxation Response is Dr Herbert Benson, who can be heard talking about his technique here.
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