Learning to relax to reduce stress is the second step towards healing anything that ails you. About 80 percent of illnesses are the result of the long-standing physiological changes caused by chronic stress. Deep relaxation can help heal illness by reversing the physiological changes and teaching the body to react differently to situations seen as stressful.
Stress is caused by activation of the autonomic nervous system through the body’s flight-or-flight response. This helps in a true emergency when fighting or fleeing the danger are the only sensible options. However, because the fight-or-flight response is activated by any situation seen as stressful, including those where fighting or fleeing are not sensible options, the body ends up being flooded by stress hormones much of the time. Consequently, it never gets a chance to return to the state of equilibrium known as homeostasis. Constant stress increases blood pressure, blood sugar and abdominal fat storage, and decreases thyroid function, immunity, bone density and muscle tissue. Over time these changes can lead to conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypothyroidism, cancer, auto-immune disease, and irritable bowel syndrome – to name but a few.
In homeostasis, all body systems are working normally, and fostering health and healing by releasing chemicals that counteract those released by stress. There are a number of techniques that can be used bring forth the relaxation response that indicates the body’s return to a state of equilibrium. Not surprisingly, the level of relaxation required to make these deep changes does not come from activities, such as reading a book or watching television, that we normally see as relaxing. Special deep relaxation techniques are required.
One of the simplest techniques was developed by Dr. Herbert Benson, a physician at Harvard Medical School, who observed that people practicing transcendental meditation (TM) reduced the activity of their autonomic nervous system. Dr. Benson called the reduced autonomic activity ‘the relaxation response’ and gave this name to the simplified form of TM he developed. The Relaxation Response technique involves sitting quietly once or twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes and repeating a calming word or phrase in your mind. Words such as ‘one’ or ‘peace,’ or phrases that express your religious or philosophical beliefs such as ‘In God I trust’ are best. When distracting thoughts arise, just return to your chosen word or phrase.
Other forms of meditation will also achieve the same results as will almost any regular activity that quiets and focuses the mind. Yoga, chanting, and repetitive prayer are some other examples of activities that also elicit the relaxation response. The key to success in bringing about homeostasis and staying in, or returning quickly to, that state during a potentially stressful situation is to practice your chosen activity at least once a day for about 20 minutes. Just as you would not expect to build muscle by only exercising once a week, you cannot train your body to choose the relaxation response over the fight-and-flight response by practicing infrequently or irregularly.
Learning to relax in a way that will reduce physiological stress is one of the most helpful steps you can take to create health and healing.