There’s no doubt about it. We live in increasingly stressful times, earmarked by lagging economies, struggling social systems and vivid media coverage of fear, instability and uncertainty. Even our younger generation is feeling the pressure, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America report. A worrying 91% of respondents aged 15-21 years old reported that they were suffering physical or emotional symptoms of stress.
Modern living tends to foster continual triggering of the body’s stress response, which causes and aggravates a multitude of illnesses and diseases in the long-term. What’s more, we naturally crave relaxation when we’re stressed out, but our interpretation of what it means to relax often misses the mark. Alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and other unhealthy forms of stress relief serve only to physiologically exacerbate the problem.
As it turns out, we don’t even need to look outside ourselves for a magic potion to relax. Our bodies are already equipped with an exceptional counterbalance to the toll of life’s stresses: the relaxation response.
Fight or Flight
Have you ever felt your heart pound during a scary situation? How about shaking hands, sweaty palms or tightness in your belly?
We all know what it’s like to feel stress in the body, as well as in the mind. When we encounter stressful or dangerous circumstances, our body kicks a cascade of hormones into gear; heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels elevate, while digestion slows, muscles tighten and blood flow to the extremities is decreased. Ultimately, our bodies prepare us to face the problem, one way or another – put up a fight, or run like hell.
Governed by our sympathetic nervous system, this automatic response was first characterised by Dr. Walter B. Cannon at Harvard Medical School in the 1920s. Known as the fight-or-flight response, this built in mechanism evolved in our ancient ancestors as a means of survival. Cave-men and women encountered countless life-threatening situations, and this system enabled them to be on high alert in the face of predators.
Stress and Ill-health
Despite the fact that we’re now unlikely to face the threat of being eaten, our bodies unfortunately have a hard time telling the difference between real and perceived danger. The day-to-day challenges we face get misinterpreted as life-threatening; sounding the body’s alarm whether we are faced with a tiger or a traffic jam. These days, it’s not uncommon for the body’s stress response to be triggered multiple times per day, even multiple times per hour. (Learn more in The Body Remembers: How Your Body is Storing Past Trauma.)
Over time, the surging hormones that accompany chronic stress can take a serious toll on health, both physically and mentally. Several studies have affirmed that 60-80% of visits to primary care physicians can be attributed to stress, and there is no doubt that a great deal of medical issues are either caused or exacerbated by the chronic effects of the stress response. From anxiety to asthma, high blood pressure to autoimmune diseases, ever-increasing research is uncovering undeniable links between stress and ill-health.
The Relaxation Response
Thankfully, our bodies are a lot cleverer than we give them credit for, and the fight-or-flight response has a calming counterpart. Coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, the relaxation response is our body’s off-switch, our very own built-in stress buster.
When we are no longer in perceived danger, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, sending signals to the body that it’s ok to rest and digest. In simple terms, the relaxation response is the physiological opposite to fight-or-flight. Not only does it return blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning and hormonal levels to their normal state, but it allows the body to repair damage caused by the stress response.
Benson is a pioneer in the growing field of mind-body medicine, and his extensive research into the relaxation response offers fascinating findings. In a 1969 study, Benson found that monkeys were able to control their own blood pressure with nothing more than brainpower. By 1975, he published The Relaxation Response, in which he asserted that it is possible for us to actively elicit this response as a means of counterbalancing and compensating for the damaging effects of stress on the body.
Benson’s continued research found that regular elicitation of the relaxation response could prevent and even treat a vast array of diseases. Throughout his extensive career, Benson studied thousands of patients, finding research that supports the efficacy of the relaxation response in treating cardiac arrhythmias, diabetes mellitus, duodenal ulcers, hypertension, infertility, insomnia, PMS, rheumatoid arthritis, side effects of cancer and all forms of pain – to name but a few.
Meditation as Medicine
Benson’s method of eliciting the relaxation response is remarkably straightforward: get comfortable, relax your muscles, repeat a focus word, phrase or prayer and passively disregard everyday thoughts that inevitably arise, returning to your repetition each time you are distracted. This may sound rather familiar to those who practice meditation, and indeed this is no coincidence.
Benson’s research demonstrated that meditation is accompanied by striking physiological changes, including sharp drops in heart rate, respiratory rate and metabolic rate. Recent studies have supported that long-term practitioners of meditation can even incite permanent changes in cardiac function and neuroplasticity, actually altering the structure and function of the heart and brain.
Time and time again, meditation is proving to be one of the most direct and powerful ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, clinically counteracting the effects of stress on both body and mind. (Learn more in How Mediation Can Help Soother Your Stress and Anxiety.)
But what if meditation isn’t for you? There is never any single method that works for everyone, and it may well be that sitting with your monkey-mind is stressful in itself. In her ground-breaking book Mind over Medicine, Dr. Lissa Rankin offers an alternative way to elicit the relaxation response: “radical self-care.” Nowadays, it’s almost impossible for us to ignore the benefits of a healthy lifestyle; nutritious food, workout routines and fistfuls of supplements are the stars of most social media feeds. But for Rankin, this is not enough.
In order to counter the repetitive triggering of the stress response, we need to get radical. Self-care extends way beyond gym visits, veggies and vitamins, and Rankin insists that things like setting boundaries, living in alignment with your truth, spending time doing what you love and surrounding yourself with healthy social interactions and a sense of connection are all vital components of good health.
Although lifestyle factors clearly play a big part in stress, the frustrating truth is that we are often exposed to stressors we can’t or aren’t ready to change. If this sounds familiar, it is absolutely essential that you prioritise activities that induce the relaxation response, as means of offsetting the stresses in your life and decreasing their impact on your health.
It’s not only meditation that shuts off the stress response; engaging in creative expression, yoga, breathing techniques, reading, massage, walking in nature, listening to music, cooking, taking a bath, playing with pets, spending time with your spiritual community, laughter and even sexual release have a profound impact on the nervous system, encouraging the body toward the state of rest it requires for self-repair and self-healing. (Learn more in Just Breathe: 4 yogic Breathing Techniques That Will Really Relax You.)
Countering Stress with Self-Care
Although it can sometimes feel like we have no control over our body’s reaction to stress, there is clearly an abundance of healthy ways to counterbalance the toll of life’s stresses on our bodies. We hold the power to heal ourselves from such a wide array of suffering, and the key is making time to harness this potential.
Countering stress with self-care is as important for the body as getting enough sleep, and even just 20 minutes a day can make a noticeable difference to your health. Regardless of how you do it, prioritise engaging in activities that elicit the relaxation response and you will undoubtedly feel the difference. In a world of ever-increasing stresses and strains, it really is vital that we listen to the body’s whispers before it breaks down, that we prioritise our health before it’s too late.