Relaxation is the most important self-care step you can take to improve your health immediately, so put your feet up, relax and read on…
Imagine feeling calm, peaceful and rested as you go about your day. This is your natural state of being, but how often do you actually feel like this? My guess is “not often enough”, perhaps even so infrequently that the idea of it being your natural state makes you scoff!
The importance of relaxation cannot be underestimated. It is far more than a hopeful aspiration to hold, it is a state of being that is vital to your very health and wellbeing. Relaxation is therefore the ultimate self-care practice for health.
Healing on any level, cannot occur when stress is your predominant state.
Let me explain why.
Your Body’s Response To Stress
Stress negatively affects every system in the human body, as well as affecting thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Feelings of stress induce a physiological response in your body called the “Fight or Flight Response”, also known as the “Stress Response”. This is your body’s automatic response to any perceived threat and it is designed to get you out of danger quickly.
When the Fight or Flight Response is activated:
Your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase, pumping blood and oxygen to your muscles, and away from internal organs.
Your blood begins to thicken in preparation for any wounds.
Hormone levels and blood sugar surges to provide an instant boost of energy.
You sweat to cool your body temperature.
Muscles tense in anticipation of fighting or fleeing.
Functions that aren’t vital to your immediate survival are slowed (such as your immune system, digestion, growth and libido).
While the Fight or Flight Response is helpful in genuine life-threatening situations, it is also triggered automatically with every stressful event we encounter physically and emotionally. In our modern society it is not the threat of a Saber-toothed Tiger, but the looming deadline, the unexpected bill, the traffic jam, the horrible boss, an argument etc. Once this response is triggered we often have no way to fight or flee the stressful situation, and therefore the body’s Stress Response is ongoing.
From the list of physiological changes above, you can see how remaining in Fight or Flight is severely detrimental to your health. It is well documented that chronic stress, even at a low-level, takes its toll on the body and causes many serious health problems. These health problems are exacerbated because the Stress Response has slowed your body’s natural ability to self-repair.
The only way to turn off the Stress Response, is to turn on the Relaxation Response.
Your Body’s Response To Relaxation
The Relaxation Response is also an automatic response of the body. Like the Stress Response it is operated by the Autonomic Nervous System and automatically creates a cascade of physiological changes once activated. But the Relaxation Response requires a conscious effort to activate. It elicits the opposite physiological changes to Fight or Flight: heart rate slows, respiratory rate slows, muscles relax, your organs and systems operate as they’re supposed to during normal physiological function. It can be described as a physical state of deep relaxation.
Turning on the Relaxation Response is simple and enjoyable, but the ability to switch it on requires learning to better manage stress in your life. Keeping a journal will help you with this process.
Managing stress involves:
Understanding how stress affects your physical body, your emotions and your behaviour.
Learning to recognise what stress feels like in your body.
Recognising what your personal stress triggers are.
Avoiding or minimising stressful situations wherever possible.
Applying techniques that activate the Relaxation Response.
Self-Care for Health: Making Time for Relaxation
There are a number of ways to turn on this natural and automatic response, but conscious effort is required. You must not merely “find time” to relax, but actively “make time” or it will never happen. Often we feel guilty when we slow down and take time for ourselves. We feel like we should be doing something “more important”, but the truth is there is nothing more important than your health and wellbeing, and turning on the Relaxation Response is essential to this.
Dr Herbert Benson, the cardiologist and professor at the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School, discovered and proved the Relaxation Response back in the 1970’s. In his 1975 book “The Relaxation Response” Dr Benson notes how difficult our society has made it to take personal time-out for relaxation, but he wisely suggests:
Is it unreasonable to incorporate this inborn capacity into our daily lives by having a “Relaxation Response break” instead of a coffee break?
Eliciting the Relaxation Response daily will counter the harmful effects of the Stress Response, and your body will be able to heal itself once more. You will also be in a better space to handle the stress that you can’t avoid - so it is well worth making the time to relax.
Relaxing Self-Care Practices
There are many enjoyable ways to turn on the Relaxation Response, but here are my personal favourites:
The key to optimal health and wellbeing, is to engage in these activities daily and really incorporate relaxation into your lifestyle. By making the time to relax you will find that “calm, peaceful and rested” becomes your natural state of being, as it should be.
With love and gratitude,