Relax!

Tonight’s post is another one inspired by stress class.

The most common stress reaction is the acute alarm reaction, and this produces a series of physiological changes that were intended for extreme “either run or fight for your life!” circumstances. The heart pumps more blood, and the lungs deliver more oxygen to muscles.

Catecholamines are one of the worst parts of this emergency response.

Catecholamines are adrenaline-like chemicals, and they can produce lesions within the muscle fiber of the heart. These are nearly impossible to diagnose before death. You know how you hear about seemingly healthy people who suddenly die of a heart attack? Often it’s because of the catecholamines that caused heart lesions. These are only detectable post-mortem. Catecholamines can even cause a rare condition pheochromocytoma, a tumor of the adrenal medulla.

Endorphins are also produced in the acute alarm state, causing the body to decrease sensitivity to pain and neglect upkeep and repair. Some people become sick or are more prone to injury following severely stressful events. This one happens to me a lot, and I always kick myself for not remembering to take Vitamin C and get lots of sleep right after a lot of stress lifts (like after finishing a busy semester, after a tense week full of more stress than usual, etc.)

SO–as you can see, to live in a prolonged state of fight or flight is not good for the body.

Consider this: we live in a nation where the most prevalent diseases are not contagious.  I find this interesting, and it is revealing about our American culture. We are a fast-paced, achievement-centered culture, and we like excess (including our food portions). The most prevalent health problems in the US of A are induced by this type of stress and other lifestyle factors (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc.)

Due to the over-elicitation of this response in our modern Western world, people are starting to pay more attention to the relaxation response as a counter strategy to resisting this stress reaction.

Physiological consequences of the relaxation response: decrease in oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide elimination, changes in heart and respiratory rates, lowers blood pressure.

The basic idea is that the two states of being (fight or flight and relaxation) can not be experienced at the same time. So, you train your body to relax. As you become more able to tap into the relaxation response, you can pull it out in tough times when your body would normally go into fight or flight mode (i.e., on the verge of panic attacks, when someone cuts you off in traffic).

The relaxation response has been practiced for centuries within different religious contexts: Christianity, Judaism, Islamic mysticism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, etc. It has been achieved through prayers, meditation, yoga, repetition of breathing or recitation, etc.

Other contexts that seek to induce relaxation are hypnosis, yoga, transcendental meditation, and zen (to name a few).

Here is a starter kit for the technique of inducing relaxation. Some basic components to relaxation are listed:

Mental device: you engage in a seemingly effortless constant stimulus (i.e., repetition of words, fixed gazing)

Passive attitude: let it happen; don’t try to “force” meditation or relaxation

Decreased muscle tone: make sure you are in a comfortable posture

Quiet environment: reduce the stimuli around you

Some practical examples (to name just a few) could be sitting by a stream and watching/listening to the flow of the water, spending time in a type of prayer that doesn’t use too much mental energy, or doing yoga.

So, make time to deliberately relax each day, if you can.

Additionally, try to teach yourself how to relax when it really matters. When you feel your acute alarm reaction getting triggered, try doing some part of the relaxation process to remind your body to calm down (i.e., deep breathing, praying or reciting some verses about peace, or find some quiet for a few minutes).

  • Benson, H. (1984). The Relaxation Response And Stress. Chapter 21.
  • Eliot, R.S. (1995). From Stress to Strength. New York: Bantum Books.
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