It's one name for what happens when your parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of your body functions. This part of your nervous system regulates the work of your organs and glands while you're at rest. Your relaxation response kicks in when you feel safe. It can actually block effects from your body's response to stress. These changes are good for your mental and physical health.
Stress triggers activity in your sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of your body functions in dangerous situations. This "fight or flight" response sends out hormones called catecholamines to speed up your heart. But relaxation lets your body know it's OK to save energy. Your parasympathetic system takes over and releases a hormone called acetylcholine. That slows your heart rate down.
Stress hormones can speed up your heart rate and tighten your blood vessels. That temporarily raises your blood pressure. The opposite happens when you relax. If you have high blood pressure, relaxation methods like meditation may help you manage stress and lower your chances of heart disease. (But don't stop taking your medicine unless your doctor says it's OK.)
When stress causes the "fight or flight" reaction, your digestion gets put on hold as blood moves toward your larger muscles. Relaxation reverses this process. It also lowers inflammation that can hurt your gut. Stress plays a role in many digestive problems, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Calming techniques like deep breathing or meditation might help with your symptoms.
"Take a deep breath," you might tell someone who's in a panic. There's a good reason for that. When you're stressed, breathing speeds up. Breathing too fast may lead to low levels of carbon dioxide in your blood, which could make you dizzy and weak. But relaxation slows your breathing rate. You can also help yourself relax with slow, controlled breathing, around 6 breaths a minute.
Your body stiffens when you feel threatened, whether from a bear in the woods or a deadline at work. Usually, muscle tension eases when you calm down. But long-lasting stress can lead to tense muscles nearly all the time. If you have a hard time relaxing, ask your doctor about biofeedback. It uses sensors to give you feedback about your body's functions. That helps you learn how to release muscle tension.
Relaxation doesn't get rid of your aches, but it can turn down the volume a little. Relaxed muscles hurt less. And relaxation prompts your brain to release endorphins, chemicals that act as natural painkillers. Studies show relaxation techniques like meditation can lessen pain from conditions like fibromyalgia, migraine, chronic pelvic pain, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Stress hormones can make your blood sugar rise. And if you have diabetes, the effort it takes to manage your condition may amp up your stress. Relaxation can help you get a handle on your blood sugar (though it can't take the place of medicine). To get there, exercise regularly and get enough sleep. Try relaxation practices like meditation or yoga to help you mellow out further.
Long-lasting stress makes it harder for your body to fight off infections. But deep relaxation can help your immune system recover. You can get there with the help of techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. That's where you tense, then relax, each muscle group one by one. It's even more important to manage your worries as you age. Your immune function naturally declines over time.
Sometimes, you might be unable to doze off even when you're worn out. This "tired but wired" state is a sign you're still in "fight or flight" mode. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing can help switch on your relaxation response. They're sometimes used as a treatment for insomnia.
Some people unwind while they garden, cook, or read. Others pray or meditate. Or you can explore techniques like:
- Visual imagery
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Deep breathing
If you're not sure how to get started, ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist who teaches relaxation training.
This technique was created by Herbert Benson, MD, the heart doctor who first described the relaxation response. Here's what you do:
- Sit down, making sure you're comfortable.
- Close your eyes.
- Gradually relax all of your muscles, starting at your feet and working your way up.
- Breathe through your nose.
- Pay attention to your breath.
Do this for about 20 minutes. Then sit with your eyes closed for a few minutes.
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