What do you find stressful in life? The kids constantly bickering, a misrepresentation at work, deadlines, being late, financial burdens, the car breaking down. These are all modern day stressors. If we were still cavemen our acute physical stressors would be escaping the clutches of a ravenous bear. We would want our fight or flight response (The Stress Response) to kick in immediately to escape imminent danger.
The fight or flight response is the physiological response of the body to perceived danger. This involves a chain reaction of the release of hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is a red light to the body to prepare to run or fight. Some of the physiological reactions that occur are:
- tense muscles so they are primed to run or fight
- a dry mouth and butterflies in your stomach, because your digestive system shuts down
- a rapid heart rate which increases blood to the muscles so you can run faster
- increased blood pressure
- quicker, shallower breathing, so you can take in more Oxygen to power your muscles to run
The Stress Response is a highly sophisticated survival mechanism that will support your body to reacting to a life-threatening situation so that you have more chance of survival.
In our comfortable modern lives most of our stressors are minor irritations that when combined together can become overwhelming, and our body perceives them as a constant threat. We might wear suits to work, drive cars and have technology that can send exploratory equipment to Mars, but essentially our bodies have not changed from caveman mode. As Dr. Herbert Benson accurately observed 'our innate reactions have not changed, but society has' (2000:52).
Well why is this a problem? Western medicine has been transformative. Common life threatening diseases of the past such as Typhoid, Cholera and Polio no longer threaten us in first world countries. However, there has been an exponential growth in chronic illness (diseases of slow accumulation) such as Cardiovascular Disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Diabetes, and Multiple Sclerosis. The chronic diseases are multifactorial; they do not stem from one virus or bacteria. Being stuck in the exhaustive state of fight or flight, and the stress that results from that is increasingly seen as an exacerbating factor. It has been suggested that 'the more often the fight or flight response is activated the more likely it is that you will develop high blood pressure, especially if circumstances do not allow you to actually give battle or flee.' (Benson, H. 2000:47). Benson continues to suggest that 'when not used appropriately, which is most of the time, the fight or flight Response repeatedly elicited may ultimately lead to the dire diseases of heart attack and stroke' (2000:10).
If the body is sophisticated in creating a Stress Response surely it was supposed that there was an 'innate physiologic response that is diametrically different' (Benson, H. 2000, 10). This leads us to the Relaxation Response as discovered in the 1970's by Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and current professor of Mind Body Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
In his words 'each of us possesses a natural and protective mechanism against "overstress", which allows us to turn off the harmful bodily effects of the Fight or Flight Response' (Benson, H. 2000:10).
The Relaxation Response induces the opposite physiological states to the Stress Response such as:
- a decreased heart rate
- lower metabolism
- a decrease in the rate of breathing
- a quietning of the nervous system
- a state in which the body is in balance
Why is the Relaxation Response so relevant?
If the growth in chronic illness is exacerbated by stress, then learning how to interrupt the acute over activation of the fight or flight response is imperative. Stress can be difficult to quantify as it is deeply subjective, therefore something that induces behavioural adjustment can seem more tangible. In recognising the Relaxation Response, Herbert Benson also noted that the human body had a second survival mechanism, in that the Relaxation Response has 'the ability to heal and rejuvenate our bodies' (Benson, H. 2000:xvii).
Below are a list of just a few of the conditions, where the extent of the condition is affected by the mind/body connection i.e. stress and the fight or flight response, and can be significantly improved or even cured with self-care techniques including diet, stress control and the elicitation of the Relaxation Response (Benson, H. 2000:xlii)
Angina pectoris Dizziness
Cardiac arrhythmias Fatigue
Allergic skin reactions Hypertension
Mild and moderate depression Side effects of AIDS and Cancer
Pain Premenstrual Syndrome
How is the Relaxation Response elicited?
Quite simply, there are two components that are necessary:
1) The repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer or muscular activity.
2) Passively disregarding everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and returning to your repetition (Benson, H. 2000:xx)
So firstly sit in some form of meditative pose and choose something you would like to focus on. Secondly, passively disregarding everyday thoughts essentially means that if your mind wanders don't beat yourself up about it, just bring your attention back to the practice and carry on.
Twenty minutes a day twice a day is the suggested practice. If the thought of meditation is alien to you, or instantly makes you feel stressed at the thought of practising then some clarity on what meditation actually is might make you feel more at ease.
Meditation in its simplest form is clarity of mind. That doesn't mean that you stop thinking. It is a discipline that uses an "anchoring tool" such as the breath, a sound, a word or an action, that in doing so creates a focus. Much as if you were involved in painting, that focus induces a sense of stillness and calm in the mind, which in turn creates ripple effects of calm in the nervous system and hence the body.
Why you should try tapping into the Relaxation Response today?
The Relaxation Response is an innate part of your biological make-up. It was designed to heal and repair your body, after it had undergone a stressful event. You are tapping into what is already there, your own self-care mode. You are not taking anything, there are no side effects, and yet it's reward is almost immeasurable. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. With science now being able to measure and quantify the effects of the Relaxation Response, and health care professionals recognising it's potential I would encourage you to tap into your healing mode. After all the human body is nothing if not amazing.
Bryony Lloyd/ February 25th 2021.
Benson, Herbert. 2000. 'The Relaxation Response'. William Morrow, An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.