When most of society is over-scheduled, overstimulated, overworked, and overburdened, you need practical ways to counteract the deleterious health effects of a high-pressure lifestyle. Fortunately, there is a practice that is known to ameliorate stress and tension levels within minutes. This simple practice can be used anywhere—from office to airplane to home. It doesn’t cost anything and it is research verified. What could possibly be that great? Relaxation!
Before you dismiss the idea of relaxation to a simplistic cliché corner, let’s examine what it really is, how to do it right, and the myriad ways that it can impact your physical and mental health.
What Is Relaxation?
Your prehistoric ancestors survived the dangers of the wild through activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). When a physical threat was perceived, a series of neural connections caused the body to boost circulation, heart rate, and glucose while shutting down digestion, immune response, and rational thinking. These short-term physical changes allowed your ancestors to receive a temporary increase in strength, stamina, and focus—thus surviving the immediate peril. Those individuals with a strong SNS lived to procreate, essentially hardwiring a strong fight-or-flight response into human DNA.
The fight-or-flight response is extremely valuable when there is an actual danger. Yet, for most people in modern society, it is not physical—but rather psychological—threats that activate the SNS. In reaction to work deadlines, traffic, challenging relationships, financial burdens, and burgeoning to-do lists the body shuts down self-healing, connectivity, and creativity. Relaxation is the process by which the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is turned on and the SNS is turned off, transitioning the body from fight-and-protect mode into calm-and-connect mode. The PNS is only activated when the brain perceives that the environment is secure. Relaxation tells the brain that it is out of harm’s way and it is safe to release its hyper-vigilance.
How Do You Relax?
Learning how to relax the brain isn’t hard. In fact, anything that brings you joy, calms you down, and helps you get centered will do the trick. You may want to try one of the following methods the next time you’re ready to unwind.
Take a deep breath. Hold it for three seconds and then exhale. Do you feel more relaxed? Slow, mindful breathing invokes the relaxation response in the body. The yoga tradition is a veritable treasure trove of breathing exercises, the whole of which is known in Sanskrit as pranayama. All pranayama exercises work well to quiet the mind and relax the body.
The goal of meditation is to enter the present moment fully. By simply observing the breath or a mantra, noticing the spaces between each repetition, and witnessing the thoughts as if you were an impartial bystander, your awareness shifts into the present moment. When you leave thoughts of past and future, you find the present moment, which is the only place you can relax.
Meditation helps you enter the present moment via the mind while exercise invites you to enter via the body. Exercise dispels muscle tension, relieves anxiety, and burns up stress hormones. Yoga, in particular, integrates breath work with movement, simultaneously relaxing body and mind.
Some other relaxation ideas include the following:
- Listen to soothing music.
- Play in nature.
- Walk along the beach.
- Get a massage.
- Read a book.
- Soak in a warm bath.
What Are the Benefits of Relaxation?
The benefits of stress reduction are powerful. The benefits of relaxation in mental health and physical arenas are significant. By shutting off the SNS, you open the door to health, wholeness, creativity, and ALL of the following.
1. Happier Outlook
Research has shown that relaxation has a protective effect against depression and anxiety. In older adults, the effect has been reported to be even more pronounced. In another study, group-based relaxation skills training reduced anxious and depressive symptoms. With reported rates of depression on the rise, isn’t it nice to know that simply learning how to relax can be a protective shield against what researchers call the disease of modernity?
2. Upgraded Memory
Scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the California Institute of Technology found that stronger and more lasting memories are created when the brain is influenced by theta waves. These brain waves are associated with relaxation. “Our research shows that when memory-related neurons are well coordinated to theta waves during the learning process, memories are stronger,” said Adam Mamelak, a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
3. Stronger Immune System
Researchers in the field of psychoneuroimmunology concluded that your state of mind has the power to enhance or degenerate the immune system. A meta-analysis of over 300 studies revealed that chronic stress degraded all aspects of immunity, from fighting the common cold to warding off cancer. Practicing relaxation keeps the immune system operating at full capacity.
4. Reduced Risk of Heart Disease
According to research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, relaxation via meditation may play a valuable role in preventing or reversing heart disease. Dozens of studies performed over the past two decades have shown that relaxation simultaneously reduces heart disease cofactors such as stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and poor sleep quality.
5. Improved Relationships
Judy Ford, a licensed clinical social worker and author of Every Day Love: The Delicate Art of Caring for Each Other says, “Stress impacts our love relationships more than we are aware of or acknowledge.” Ford compares stress to a game of ping-pong where tension is the ball that bounces back and forth between partners. “Stressed-out couples quarrel and fight more often, withdraw from each other, feel disconnected, sad, frustrated, angry.” The antidote to stress is relaxation. By engaging in activities that calm the fight-or-flight response, you are better able to connect to a partner. In a state of relaxation that you are able to give and receive love.
6. Better Sleep
The body cannot enter into sleep when it is in survival mode. Relaxation slows down the busy mind by helping you to process the day’s events prior to sleep. There are specific relaxation routines that can be used prior to sleep to facilitate deep rest. Researchers have suggested that relaxation may help address insomnia and help you have a better night’s sleep.
7. Increased Energy
Stress naturally uses more energy than relaxation. When you practice stress management and take frequent relaxation breaks, you can conserve energy throughout the day. Instead of leaving work drained and worn out, working in a state of relaxation allows you to leave work with energy left for leisure, family, and exercise! Relaxation breaks also carry over into your work, allowing you to access the mind-boosting benefits of a calm and centered awareness.
8. Enhanced Creativity
The daydreamers always have been creative types. Now we know why. According to research in neuroscience, creativity occurs in moments of rest rather than while working or thinking. People who are constantly engaging their minds may actually hamper their creative impulses. Current research points to why meditation, which is a type of integrated mind-body relaxation, has been shown to enhance creativity.
9. Decreased Pain
Everyone experiences pain sometimes. But before reaching for a bottle of pain relievers the next time you have a headache, try turning inward to the inner pharmacy. Relaxation in the form of mindfulness meditation has been found to be an effective and powerful pain reliever.
10. Expanded Motivation
Have you ever felt motivated to work on your personal goals or dreams when you’re feeling stressed out about work, finances, or relationships? Most likely not. Motivation stems from inspiration, which in turn flows out of relaxation. If you want to enhance your motivation, start by carving out some time to relax your mind and enjoy life. When you are calm and connected, you will find the motivation to pursue all your worthwhile goals.
The benefits of relaxation are clear. Each type of relaxation can help someone—play around to find the combination that feels right for you.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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