In our busy lives, taking the time to relax is often easier said than done. But, do we really know what it means to relax and how to do it? You might think relaxing is lying down and taking a nap at the end of a busy day or after some hard work around the house. Others might think it’s sitting down with a cold one in front of the television. Still others would say it is meditating. Well, in a way, everyone is right: all of the above are ways to relax, but the real question is do they all elicit the body’s “relaxation response”? Can you guess which one does? If you guessed meditating, then congratulations! Now, can you guess why? In this series, I will first define relaxation and stress, discuss the cycle of stress and then I will describe certain exercises to help in reducing stress by promoting the “relaxation response.”
The Relaxation Response:
This response inhibits anxiety and restores the body’s functions and prepares the body’s physical and emotional energy for the next challenge. It is different than the response to sleep and rest. The brain waves generated during sleep cycles are much different than those generated during relaxation response, and their effects on the body better prepares it for responding to stimuli and reduce the effects of the stress response.
The Stress Response (a.k.a.: Fight or Flight)
The stress response is an involuntary response to events or challenges we experience, leading to increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased breathing rate, increased muscle tension, and decreased digestion. I think we can agree when stressful events occur, they affect us in many different ways. While most events provoke a stress response, some responses are more pleasurable than others, with some definitely positive. It’s important to realize there are both good and bad stressors, but that regardless the type, they cause a stress reaction in the body. It is how we learn to control the stress and find outlets for the stress that determines if the stress becomes a detriment to the body.
Stress is a stimulus that alters our internal and external environment. Stress can be good or bad as mentioned above depending on how we respond or react. Stress becomes bad or negative if it gives us a sense of losing control or is overwhelming to us. These reactions can lead down the path to medical problems such as headaches, neck and backache (or other muscle tension), digestive disorders (stomach ache, heartburn or ulcers), and even depression. It has even been linked to weakening the immune system.
The cycle of stress often starts with some kind of event like a family/friend problem, increased workload, or financial woes. These can trigger increased anxiety and lead us to make less healthy decisions such as skipping out on our exercise routine due to increased fatigue or time constraints. Sometimes we reduce our recreational activity and leisure time. We may retreat from communicating with our friends, coworkers or family members as the stress increases.
The second stage of the stress cycle is muscle tension. As we internalize things more, the physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches, or stomachaches can surface. In the stages hereafter we can actually become ill or sick from the autoimmune response as our body becomes so busy fighting our reaction that we become susceptible to outside attacks on the immune system. If left untreated, depression and more severe chronic illness or pain problems can ensue.
Stress doesn't have to result in a negative impact on your body. With proper coping and resiliency techniques you can learn to address your stress in a positive way. Check out next week's post for some ways to control the stress in your life.
Added on 12/14/2011
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