Stress Management – Is the Relaxation Response the answer ?
by Farzana Rahman
This article talks about stress management and the relaxation response
My spirit animal on a Monday morning (Photo by John Henry)
Your phone alarm goes off at 6.30 and you roll over to unplug your phone from its charger. You scroll through a bunch of unanswered emails, the latest news headlines and some social media feeds…
Strangely fascinated by the holiday photos of someone you never really spoke to at school ? Check
Guilt about the emails you didn’t answer because you got distracted by a ‘where are they now’ pop-up? Check
Brief contemplation about the state of the world ? Check
You go about your day with that niggling feeling that there’s something you’ve forgotten to do. But that’s okay. Sure enough, you remember exactly what you were meant to do just as you’re trying to go to sleep.
Is it any wonder that most of us suffer from a continuous hum of low-grade stress that can lead to us looking for medical help ?
Stress Symptoms and Health
The data backs this up – between 60-90% of medical visits are linked to stress-induced conditions. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re booking medical appointments to talk about a looming deadlines. What it does mean is that certain conditions may be exacerbated by or caused by stress.
As we’ve said in our previous post, when we’re in stressful situations, we evoke the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is where our body goes into preservation mode and secretes hormones such as adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol.
But many times, we evoke this fight or flight response not from an actual physical stressor but from thoughts we find stressful. Thinking about that work colleague who always hits 'reply all' or a sweaty commute to work can leave us feeling stressed out before we've even left the house.
Stress Relief and the Relaxation Response
A helpful reminder - like slogan t-shirts - (Photo by Clem Onojeghuo)
Understanding the effects of stress on our bodies makes for pretty sobering reading. So what next? Whilst being told to relax, loosen up or not worry is rooted in truth, it can leave us wanting to throttle the giver of said advice.
So what are we supposed to do? Are we resigned to a lifetime of snapping at others and daytime drinking àla Don Draper ?
It turns out that this may not have to be the case. It seems that all we have to do is evoke the relaxation response.
Mind Body Medicine and The Relaxation Response
Dr Herbert Benson is a Cardiologist most well known for his work in mind-body medicine.
He started thinking about ways to counteract the stress response in the 1970s when a group of people who practiced transcendental meditation approached him (transcendental meditation is technique developed in the 1960s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India). They asked him to study their physiology when they practiced meditation as they were convinced that it had beneficial effects on their health.
He designed a study that measured a range of metabolic markers. He assessed these markers pre-meditation, during meditation and post-meditation. The data was fascinating - it showed a 16-17% reduction in metabolic rate as well as a reduction in breathing rate of 25%.
The Relaxation Response – A Cure for the Effects of Stress ?
Dr Benson went onto further this area of study and in doing so coined the term ‘the relaxation response’. He proposed that there is a response that we can all evoke to counteract the negative effects of chronic stress.
He observed that nearly all cultures and religions had developed techniques that stimulated this ‘relaxation response’.
There was not one magical technique or cure but a range of tools that seemed to have a few areas of overlap. These activities had the following things in common:
- They broke the train of everyday thought
- They were often repetitive mental or physical acivities where the indivudal would try to passively ignore distracting thoughts
- Examples of techniques included meditation, mindfulness, prayer, yoga and Tai Chi/Qi Gong (though these are only examples)
There have been numerous studies that have gone on to demonstrate the tremendous health benefits of evoking the relaxation response on a regular basis. We’ll be deep diving into some of these in future blog posts, sign upto our newsletter for more information.