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2024 Healthier You Series – Relaxation: The Body’s Yin to the Yang of Stress

You are in a verdant field, seated near a softly babbling brook, soaking up sunshine. Birds fly overhead, and the wind is soft and gentle on your skin. You breathe deeply as your whole being is focused on nothing other than the peace and quiet of the moment and your idyllic surroundings… 

Now picture the same environment — you are seated by the brook, the sunshine overhead, the birds in flight. But you notice none of this, your breath is fast and shallow as your thoughts race back and forth from your pressing to-do-list to an argument you had earlier in the day, then on to the continuing pressure of daily expenses… 

The above scenarios highlight the internal differences between two contrasting autonomic nervous system activations. In the 1970’s, when Dr. Herbert Benson was studying Transcendental Meditation practitioners, he discovered what he eventually called the Relaxation Response — a physical state that slows down your heart rate and breathing and brings healthy blood to your internal organs. It was, as he describes in his book, The Relaxation Response, a contrast to what the body experiences when stressed  — the fight-or-flight response, which had been discovered sixty years earlier.* These two systems are vastly different in how they affect the body, both are needed for survival. 

 

The yin-yang equilibrium between stress and relaxation

The stress response is produced by the body’s sympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response by the parasympathetic nervous system. While we often think of relaxation in its role as the antidote to stress, it is an equal partner in a continuous yin-yang balancing act that allows us to respond healthily to life’s situations. Both responses have an important function in maintaining the body’s homeostasis.1 

We often think of relaxation as good and stress as bad (chronic stress does contribute to chronic disease), but not all stress is bad. There is a name for the good kind: eustress. Eustress has a beneficial effect on motivation, performance, and emotional well-being.2  It keeps a person alert to handle a creative challenge or to feel the excitement of a new career, going on a first date, or on a roller coaster ride.  

Viewing the stress and relaxation interplay in the context of the yin-yang spectrum reminds me of a definition of health that makes a lot of sense: the body continuously moving along a line between varying degrees of ease and dis-ease. When the stress response is prolonged inappropriately, the scales tip further and further to an unhealthy balance. Our Western model of health, while more aware of the nuances than ever before, sometimes engenders a rather sharp demarcation between health and illness. You are “healthy” unless you end up with observable symptoms and a diagnosable syndrome or illness. So while we know chronic stress is harmful, we may not be as motivated to address it until we end up in the doctor’s office.

 

Relaxation and a healthy immune system

While the stress response was meant to handle acute danger, like escaping from a predator in historic times, our modern world has tipped the balance toward its chronic activation. 

Chronic stress affects the immune system. From 1982 to 1992 two scientists touched off an avalanche of studies into how stress affects immunity. During that time frame these scientists studied medical students. They discovered that while under the stress of a three-day exam period each year, the students had fewer natural killer cells, which fight tumors and viral infections, and almost stopped producing immunity-boosting gamma interferon.3

Long-lasting stress makes it harder for your body to fight off infections. But deep relaxation can help your immune system recover.4

The relaxation response allows the body to recover from an activation of the fight-or-flight response. When the parasympathetic system is in charge. it then plays a continuing role in energy building, digestion, assimilation and detoxification.

 

Relaxation and Bone Health

When you think of maintaining healthy bones, relaxation as part of a strategy might not necessarily come to mind. At least it didn’t to mine. Yet as I researched this article, I discovered that relaxation can play a role in bone health by reducing chronic stress.

When you stress, you mess with your bones 5

Chronic stress is a risk factor for osteoporosis. It suppresses beneficial hormones and increases inflammation, which can eventually lead to bone loss by inhibiting bone formation and stimulating bone resorption. 6

 

Counter chronic stress by learning to relax more

This section has separate categories.

1. The first is a quick fix. If you recognize that you are stressed out, one way to switch to the relaxation mode is simply to focus on your breath. Your breath is always with you and you can employ this salve at any time. Focusing on the breath helps take your mind out of whatever stress-inducing loop it is in and be more present in the moment. You can also apply some breathing techniques: for example, breathing deeply into the abdomen, or slowing down both the inhalation and exhalation, or making the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation.  One of my favorites is bumble bee breathing.

There are numerous other ways to relieve stress quickly. Greatist wellness website gives us ”40 ways to relax in 5 minutes or less.” The list includes suggestions like:

  • Practicing a five-minute meditation using visualization  
  • Journaling 
  • Assuming a posture where your heart is below your head
  • Going for a walk 
  • Stretching
  • Chewing gum
  • Breathing in a calming essential oil
  • Plus 33 more 7

2. A longer term solution is to seek out mind/body practices and self-help therapies that not only help release the stored tension in your body in the moment but also help you develop a mindset that is less reactive.

Regular practice helps you become aware of what inner balance and calm feels like to use as a yardstick to work toward in your daily life. Some examples are yoga, tai chi, meditation, EFT tapping, progressive muscle relaxation, and the relaxation response technique developed by Dr. Benson.

3. Another avenue to explore is developing time-out relaxation routines that fit into your schedule.

Chronic stress is a serious problem for most of us in our modern world; we tend to tip the yin-yang balance in its direction. Relaxation is the antidote to help us return to a healthier equilibrium in our daily lives.

*Benson, Herbert The Relaxation Response, 25th Anniversary E book Edition Ebook, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

 

I hope you enjoyed this installment of our 2024 Healthier You Series. The research into this topic has reaffirmed my commitment to a regular yoga practice. As before, I would love to hear from you. Address any thoughts or comments to barbara@amajordifference.com. The next installment will cover another topic prominent on the list of New Year’s Resolutions: Mental Health.

 

 

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