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THE SCIENCE OF RELAXATION

Man paddling kayak in mountain lake, Lake Rotoiti, New Zealand

In response to the growing awareness of the physiological and psychological harm caused by stress, scientists and psychologists are thinking about relaxing. To be clear, they’re still working as hard as ever –thinking about relaxing by undertaking research outlining a new ‘science of relaxation’ that qualifies how important it is to relax and examines the best techniques for doing so.

Much of the research has focused on the ‘relaxation response’: the psychological opposite to the fight-or-flight response. This is a state of deep calm characterised by the absence of stress and anxiety. When achieved, it has many positive physiological implications. The National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health documented the scientifically verified benefits of the relaxation response in a list that includes decreases in blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen consumption, as well as relief from the symptoms of conditions as diverse as arthritis, insomnia, depression and infertility.

American doctor and professor Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, is one of the pioneers of mind body research. A founding trustee of the American Institute of Stress, he was first to describe the relaxation response. He believes that stress can either bring about or worsen many (if not all) health conditions and, as a corollary, that the relaxation response helps avert or alleviate these same conditions.

A Toolkit for Stress-relief

Dr Benson and others pursuing his line of inquiry have discovered a variety of ‘relaxation techniques’ –various activities that stimulate the response encompassing familiar practices such as meditation, yoga, running and deep breathing, as well as less obvious and well known methods like progressive muscle relaxation and biofeedback-assisted relaxation (they’re not as complex as they sound, more on them soon). In addition, there are tried and true habits that can restore your sense of calm and perspective –like reading a book or drinking a cup of herbal tea or, for maximum effect, both.

Dr Benson has also identified a common thread running through these relaxation techniques. They all disrupt our ingrained, day to day patterns of thinking. “Anything that breaks the train of everyday thought will evoke [the relaxation response].” Repetition is one particularly effective strategy for achieving this is. You will notice that repetition is a factor in many of the techniques mentioned. Because repetition is relaxing.

It might sound strange, but physical stress often relieves mental stress. Running is particularly effective at triggering the relaxation response because of the rhythmic, repetitious action of putting one foot after the other. Call it muscular meditation –the sweaty equivalent of a mantra or deep breathing exercise. This description fits many other forms of aerobic exercise like swimming, cycling or walking. The Harvard Medical school puts it nicely: “Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress.”

If exercise isn’t your thing, repetitive hobbies like knitting or crocheting are another option, according to Dr Benson. If the needle and thread aren’t appealing, consider meditation. We wrote about at some length in our beginner’s guide to mindfulness. In the blog, we note that researchers have repeatedly attributed reduced levels of anxiety and stress to meditation in its many forms –mindful and otherwise.

Lastly, let’s discuss the fancy-sounding techniques we said we’d explain later. Progressive muscle relaxation is a process that involves monitoring and controlling muscle tension in each muscle group, one after the other, head to toe. It’s a particularly useful option for the office –an oftentimes stressful place where, generally speaking, other relaxation techniques are not allowed. Maybe running around the office is ok in your line of work. If not, progressive relaxation might a good option. It’s also great before sleep while lying in bed.

Biofeedback-assisted relaxation is the practice of maintaining an awareness of your body –especially automatic functions like heart rate, skin temperature and blood pressure, which you do not exercise conscious control over. While scientists do not know the mechanism through which this process works to relieve stress, they know it does and will even recommend it to patients suffering from a diverse array of health problems, including migraine headaches, chronic pain and incontinence.

Besides actively trying to reduce stress with relaxation techniques, it’s a great idea to remember the basics of dealing with stress. This means remaining mindful of our stress levels and, when stressed, identifying the cause and de-escalating even a cup of herbal tea is a good start.

Do you have any tried and true stress management techniques? Let us know in the comments.

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