For the next couple of columns I want to talk about Relax, one of The Five R’s of Coping that we talked about in my last column. The simplest way to describe true relaxation is that it is the opposite of stress. The relaxed state and the stressed state are the complete opposites. This is why it is impossible to be relaxed and stressed at the same time. The goal of all relaxation training is to induce a relaxation response that cancels out the stress response.
The Stressed State
As we discussed in an earlier column, when you are threatened and feel that you can’t cope, your body triggers a stress response. During this response your body mobilizes energy to fight or flee. This is referred to as the “Fight or Flight Response.” In essence, your body gets you ready to do one of two things; (1) stand your ground and fight the stressor or (2) get the heck out of there as fast as possible. Here are some things that go in your body as part of this mobilization of energy:
- Increased cardiac output
- Increased body metabolism
- Increased muscular tension
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood-clotting time
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased blood flow to the major muscle groups involved in fight-or-flight
- Increased breathing rate
- Increased oxygen consumption
People who study stress refer to this as a heightened state of arousal of your mind and body. This heightened state of arousal involves your nervous system, muscular system, and the way your mind processes information.
Nervous System Arousal
Your nervous system involves your central (brain and spinal cord), and peripheral nervous systems. Your peripheral nervous system has nerves throughout your entire body that links to your brain and spinal cord. The nerves that make up you central and peripheral nervous systems have millions of connections throughout your body and are constantly sending and receiving messages in the form of electrical impulses.
During normal activity messages are sent back and forth through your nervous system at a rate that allows you brain to process information and your body to function normally. All of this changes however during a stress response when your nervous system is aroused.
When you are aroused during a stress response your brain works overtime sending and receiving millions of stress-related nerve transmissions. This overwhelms the system and your mind doesn’t process information as accurately or quickly as it normally does. You lose your ability to focus, concentrate, and think clearly. I’m sure you can recall times when stress got you so frazzled you couldn’t think clearly and essentially froze up.
Muscular System Arousal
You have muscles associated with three different parts of your body; skeleton, heart, and internal organs. All three are activated during the stress response. Your skeletal muscles allow you to walk, run, push, lift, and pull things. Your internal smooth and cardiac muscles go about their work of pumping blood, breathing, digesting food, eliminating waste, and performing a host of other functions.
During stress arousal, your muscular system is on high alert and ready to act. This creates a state of chronic tension called bracing. When your skeletal muscles are chronically tense your body feels tight and on edge making it hard to relax and feel comfortable. In addition it can cause chronic pain, cramping and muscle spasms. Smooth muscle bracing is related to a host of digestive system disorders and cardiac muscle bracing can result in chest pains that mimic angina or other cardiac symptoms.
Increased Arousal of Your Mind
When you get stressed your mind focuses almost exclusively on the threat posed by the stressor. As a way to protect you from the threat and harm associated with the stressor your mind analyzes it to death. It scrutinizes everything that could possibly go wrong and projects an infinite stream of “what if” and “why” questions and scenarios. It floods your mind with an endless procession of negative and pessimistic thoughts, concerns, fears, and worries that are not very helpful in managing the stressful situation and often makes it worse.
The Relaxed State
As I mentioned earlier, the relaxed state is just the opposite. When you are relaxed your mind and body slow down and function more efficiently. Here are some characteristics of the relaxed state:
- Decreased cardiac output
- Decreased body metabolism
- Decreased muscular tension
- Decreased heart rate
- Decreased blood-clotting time
- Decreased blood pressure
- Normalized blood flow to the major muscle groups involved in fight-or-flight
- Decreased breathing rate
- Decreased oxygen consumption
When you are truly relaxed, all of your major brain and body functions operate at a slower, more efficient level.
- Your brain and central nervous system send and receive fewer messages. The messages that are sent are communicated more efficiently.
- In addition, your skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscles loosen up, release their tension, and stop bracing.
- Your thoughts flow freely and easily and you are more optimistic and feel more in control of your life.
How Do You Achieve True Relaxation?
To truly relax you need to do something that slows both your body and mind down. To induce a relaxed state you can lead with the mind or the body. I call activities that lead with the mind passive relaxation strategies because you are generally lying down or sitting when you perform them and they involve little physical exertion. Classic passive relaxation strategies include diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, visualization, and self-hypnosis. I call techniques that lead with the body, active relaxation strategies because they involve mild, moderate, vigorous or cathartic levels of physical activity. I group these together in my system and call them Release techniques.
Both active and passive relaxation strategies involve your body and your mind to ultimately induce a relaxation response. They just put the emphasis more on one or the other. For example, when I meditate, I am very aware of what is going on in my body, I am just not moving. When I do something active to release my stress I am aware of my thoughts and the need to keep them focused on the present moment and what is going on in my body.
In the next several columns I’ll discuss both active and passive strategies and give you some tips on how to use them.
Until then remember to Stress Less and Live More.
Dr Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a semi-retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in NJ.