When our bodies are exposed to a sudden stress or threat, we respond with a characteristic "fight or flight" response. This is when epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine are released from the adrenal grands, resulting in an increase in blood pressure and pulse rate, faster breathing and increased blood flow to the muscles. Every time your body triggers the "fight or flight" response to a situations that is not life-threatening, you are experiencing what is essentially a false alarm. Too many false alarms experienced by the body can lead to stress related disorders such as heart disease, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, insomnia, sexual dysfunction and immune system disorders.
A simple meditation technique practiced for as few as 10 minutes per day can help you control stress, decrease anxiety, improve cardiovascular health, and achieve greater capacity for relaxation.
The Relaxation Response
The relaxation response was developed by Harvard physician Herbert Benson in the 1970s. The technique has gained acceptance by physicians and therapists worldwide as a valuable adjunct to therapy for symptom relief in conditions ranging from cancer to AIDS. The relaxation response is a technique designed to elicit a state of deep relaxation in which breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure and metabolism are decreased. Training our bodies on a daily basis to achieve this state of relaxation can lead to enhanced mood, lowered blood pressure and reduction of lifestyle stress.
The two essential steps to the relaxation response are:
- The repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer or muscular activity.
- Passive disregard of everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind during the process, followed by a return to the repetition.
To elicit the relaxation response:
- Choose a focus word or phrase for repetition. You can use a sound such as "om," a word such as "one" or "peace," or a word with special meaning to you.
- Sit in a comfortable position in a quiet place free of distractions. Close your eyes and relax your muscles progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head and neck.
- Breathe slowly and naturally and as you do say your focus word, sound, phrase or prayer silently to yourself while you exhale.
- Intruding worries or thoughts should be dismissed to the best of your ability by focusing on the repetition.
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. It's okay to open your eyes to look at a clock while you are practicing, but do not set an alarm.
- When you have finished, remain seated, first with your eyes closed and then with your eyes open, and gradually allow your thoughts to return to everyday reality.
The relaxation response can also be elicited through other meditative and relaxation techniques. No matter how the relaxation state is achieved, the physical and emotional consequences of stress can be reduced through regular practice.
Deep breathing is one of the easiest stress management techniques to learn, and the best thing about it is that it can be done anywhere! When we become stressed, one of our body's automatic reactions is shallow, rapid breathing which can increase our stress response. Taking deep, slow breaths is an antidote to stress and is one way we can "turn-off" our stress reaction and "turn-on" the relaxation response. Deep breathing is the foundation of many other relaxation exercises.
- Get into a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down.
- Put one hand on your stomach, just below your rib cage.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose. Your stomach should feel like rising and expanding outward.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, emptying your lungs completely and letting your stomach fall.
- Repeat several times until you feel relaxed.
- Practice several times a day.
Information about the relaxation response courtesy of: Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
PMR is a technique of stress management developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the early 1920s. Jacobson argued that since muscular tension accompanies anxiety, one can reduce the negative feelings by learning how to relax and relieve the muscular tension.
PMR is based on alternately tensing and then relaxing one's muscles. A person can practice this technique by either sitting or lying down in a comfortable spot. The key to the relaxation process is taking some deep breaths and then proceeding to tense, then relax a group of muscles in a systematic order. One can start with the head and move down to the neck, shoulders, etc. or can start with the feet and legs and proceed accordingly. The goal of the process is to cause deeper relaxation to the body than by simply attempting to relax.
A Simple Exercise that will Help You Relax in 10 Steps:
- Sit in a comfortable position, with eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths, expanding your belly as you breathe air in and contracting it as you exhale.
- Begin at the top of your body, and go down. Start with your head, tensing your facial muscles, squeezing your eyes shut, puckering your mouth and clenching your jaw. Hold, then release and breathe.
- Tense as you lift your shoulders to your ears, hold, then release and breathe.
- Make a fist with your right hand, tighten the muscles in your lower and upper arm, hold, then release. Breathe in and out. Repeat with left hand.
- Concentrate on your back, squeezing shoulder blades together. Hold, then release. Breathe in and out.
- Suck in your stomach, hold, then release. Breath in and out.
- Clench your buttocks, hold, then release. Breathe in and out.
- Tighten your right hamstring, hold then release. Breathe in and out. Repeat with left hamstring.
- Flex your right calf, hold, then release. Breathe in and out. Repeat with left calf.
- Tighten toes on your right foot, hold, then release. Breathe in and out. Repeat with left foot.
Adapted from www.arthritistoday.org
Meditation is a mind-body practice originating from ancient religious and spiritual traditions. The practice of meditation started thousands of years ago and first became popular in Asia with the teachings of Buddha, who practiced meditation himself. Eventually, the Buddhist form of meditation spread to the Western world, and remains popular today. In meditation, one learns to focus their attention while trying to eliminate or diffuse their stream of thoughts. This practice is believed to result in a state of greater relaxation and mental calmness. Practicing meditation can change how one reacts to emotions or thoughts.
Meditation is used as a mind-body medicine. Generally, mind-body medicine focuses on two things: the interactions between the brain, body, and behavior of the individual, and the ways that emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors affect health. Meditation is used to help reduce anxiety, pain, depression, stress, insomnia, and physical and emotional symptoms that are associated with chronic illnesses and their respective treatments. Meditation is used for overall wellness.
This information is from Mental Health Wellness Week, a national public campaign to promote mental health and wellness throughout the United States. MHWW is a Freedom From Fear Program.