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Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system and what is called the stress response (aka the ‘fight or flight’ response). In order to reduce stress, we need to activate the counteracting parasympathetic nervous system and what has been coined the ‘relaxation response’
“The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and the opposite of the fight or flight response”Herbert Benson, MD
The relaxation response helps to negate the negative the effects of stress by counteracting the physiological effects of the fight or flight response.
Whereas the stress response causes:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased breathing rate & oxygen consumption
- Increased muscle tension
- Increase in stress hormones (cortisol and noradrenaline)
The relaxation response has been shown to induce:
- Decreased heart rate & blood pressure
- Lower breathing rate & oxygen consumption
- Decreased muscle tension
- Reduction of stress hormones (cortisol and noradrenaline)
There are many ways to evoke the relaxation response such as tai chi, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, prayer, yoga and massage. But we can also easily activate and train the relaxation response with the simple relaxation response exercise:
How to perform the Relaxation Response Exercise:
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.
- Breathe slowly
- In through you nose and out thorough your mouth
- As you breathe out, say the word, “one”, silently to yourself.
- For example, breathe in … out, “one”, breathe in … out, “one”, etc.
- Breathe easily and naturally.
- Other thoughts will come to mind. Do not worry or get frustrated – this is normal. Simply recognise that your mind has strayed and then return back to phrase
- Continue for 10-15 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm.
- When you have finished, slowly open your eyes.
- Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes may interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response
The relaxation response exercise is routinely recommended to treat patients suffering from heart conditions, high blood pressure, chronic pain, insomnia, and many other physical ailments.