The Importance of the Relaxation Response

The Importance of the Relaxation Response

I want to take you on a brief journey to make a point, starting with early man and ending with our modern selves. When we were anthropologically more primitive and still living amongst nature, we faced the risk of becoming a larger predators dinner, and so our unique form of physiology developed a human variation of the fight or flight response.

When our ancestors came upon a danger, their sympathetic nervous system would kick into this response mode, causing a number of physical changes in the body as it prepares for a battle or some serious running. Our hearts expand and beat faster as more blood is pumped into the muscles, sugars and fats are sent into the blood, adrenaline production ramps up, our blood actually thickens in case we are bitten, non-essential operations get shut down in favor of get-me-the-hell-out-of-here operations, and numerous other key responses occur. A good approach for the puny, toothless, clawless human living in the big, bad world.

Now fast forward to the 21st century. Humans live in cities completely detached from any real danger, other than other humans of course. We sit at the apex, and no longer need the fight or flight response, but our body doesn't know this. The problem is that, as we now know, our minds have the power to cause physiological responses, and we also know that mental stress initiates the same response in the body as danger. Studies done by researchers, including Dr Herbert Benson at the Harvard Mind/Body Medical Institute, showed that when a person is consumed by a stressor, even one that exists only in the mind, the body engages this stress response with all its attendant changes.

This is very important to acknowledge. This stress response is really hard on the body. It does lots of things that are definitely not good for you, all in the name of a quick getaway, and then a rapid return to normal. They are acceptable to biology because you rarely face a predator threat (in relative terms.) It just won't happen that often, which is good considering it also uses us a lot of energy resources.

But if your mind can activate this response even without an actual external cause, you are gunning for trouble without a watchdog. With the pace of today's world, and the demands on our lives, there is already enough pressure. Now add to that the individual's personality, their mental state, and how they choose to respond to life's travails, and you potentially have a lot of stress response. 

A lot of your body doing harmful things to itself!

We are consistently activating it when we don't need to. Given what we know of the effects of the stress response on the body, the deleterious impacts on every aspect of health if consistent, this is an untenable situation. We are, knowingly, or worse, unknowingly, abusing ourselves, doing arguably more damage than a hard drug abuser. It's called allostatic load. And what makes this so insidious is that the effects are slow and cumulative and often hard to see until it's too late. We campaign and work to end all sorts of lesser issues in our lives, yet we ignore something so dangerous.

Low and slow, the assault from chronic stress rushes us toward a health precipice.

It is likely that much of the illness and disability we suffer may originate from this constant assault on our bodies. To paint a mental picture, imagine you spent every last penny on an expensive supercar, held it in great esteem, and when you weren't proudly driving it, you left it in the garage with the engine permanently running at full throttle. Quite obviously, you would very quickly have a problem. Every part of the engine system would degrade and problems would occur even in systems not actively involved.

This chronic stress effect could have as far-reaching consequences as accelerated aging, brain cell damage, and chronic illness. As I mentioned once before, gerontologists call cortisol the "death hormone" because it is involved in processes that cause aging. Who knows how much time, money and energy is spent trying to remedy symptoms of this somewhat self-created malady. We need to address it for the sake of our wellbeing, not to mention our duty as a good evolutionarily adaptive species.

So how do you counteract the stress response?

The answer is quite simple. The opposite of stress is relaxation. Et voila, enter the relaxation response, coined at Harvard in the 70s when researchers recognized the effects of meditation on bodily systems. The changes were basically the counter effects to the stress response, and this is key to solving this problem.

The relaxation response is the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, with the release of chemicals and neural signals that cause your muscles and organs to relax, and to send blood back to the brain, and of course the rest of you (like your gut, which is completely deprived during the stress response.) It is, at very least, the counter-balancing mechanism for humans subject to the stress response.

Research consistently shows that regular activation of this response can improve health problems that are caused by stress, anything from fibromyalgia, to hypertension, gastrointestinal issues, sleeplessness, mood disorders, and numerous others. I would go further and suggest that it may well assist in every aspect of your health, if for no other reason than it prevents the stress response from breaking you down.

The best thing about the relaxation response is that it can be easily engendered. You do not have to rely on the body to autonomically engage it. You can use a multitude of techniques from meditation to supplements to music and sound to practices like yoga. Given that your mind can activate it, all you need is to find a trigger that works for you. It really doesn't have to be anything specific, just whatever gets you into the mode and responding.

Here's one example of a technique:

Steps to engender the relaxation response:

Find the most comfortable position, whether the lotus or just lying flat. 

Close your eyes and focus on relaxing all your muscles, beginning at your feet and moving up to the top of your head. With each muscle group, tense it up and then totally let it relax, feeling the deep difference. 

Breathe easily through your nose, slow and long, hold for a couple of seconds and then out long and slowly.

Each time you breathe in and out, say the word "om" to yourself silently. 

If any distracting thoughts enter your mind, they turn into birds and fly away and you return to repeating "om."

Keep practicing until you can do it easily.

The results may be spectacular. Just remember to do it in between meals as digestion interferes with the process.

As I said, this is not the only approach. Research shows that the relaxation response can be engendered through chanting, music, smell, and even food and nutrition. Foods high in amino acids like theanine, tyrosine, phenylalanine, and tryptophan all have positive calming effects on our physiology and can be very effective to counteract chronic stress effects over time. We created our SERENE relaxation supplement specifically to induce the relaxation response naturally in the body. It is another effective method, especially for people who struggle with the either the discipline, time, or even with mental self-sabotage.

Whatever approach you take, make a commitment right now to your long term health and embrace the relaxation response. Also, check this post on mindful focus for more perspective.

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Wallace Robert K, Benson Herbert, Wilson AF. A wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state. American Journal of Physiology 1971;221:795-9.

Benson Herbert, Wallace Robert K. Decreased drug abuse with Transcendental Meditation: A study of 1,861 subjects. In: Zarafonetis CJD, ed. Drug Abuse - Proceedings of the International Conference. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger, 1972:369-76.

Wallace Robert K, Benson Herbert. The physiology of meditation. Scientific American 1972;226:84-90.

The opinions expressed in this article are of the author. Content and other information presented on the site are not meant to be medical advice or any substitute for professional advice, counseling, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard professional medical or mental health advice from your physician or other qualified health provider.

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