The Relaxation Response


This is the second in a three-part series about the stress response, the relaxation response, and how the two processes influence who we are as eaters, our relationship with food, and our relationship with life.

Relaxation is supposed to be the natural state of being. The stress response, explained in my last post, evolved as a short-term survival mechanism. When the threat passes, our metabolic state should return to pre-threat levels.

This is how it should work:

When we perceive a threat, our stress response is activated, and our sympathetic nervous system is switched on. You will recall this means increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased release of adrenaline and cortisol, increased blood flow to the extremities and slowed digestion. When the body is no longer perceiving danger, the autonomic nervous system functioning returns to normal. The body moves from a state of arousal to a state of physiological relaxation, where all systems return to their normal state. The parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, and relaxation happens. Relaxation is a physical state of rest that results in a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension.

Most of us don’t exist in a relaxed state. Already in the 1960′s, researchers at Harvard led by Herbert Benson, studied the opposite of the stress response. Benson defined “Relaxation Response” to describe the process of invoking a counter-response to stress. Many people are unable to find a way to put the brakes on stress. Chronic low-level stress keeps our stress response activated, like a motor that is idling too high for too long. After a while, this has a negative effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress. Benson realized relaxation can be induced and practiced using techniques such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing exercises, self-hypnosis, biofeedback and other stress-management techniques. Physical activity too can stifle the buildup of stress by deepening breathing and relieving muscle tension.

True relaxation is more than the opposite of stress. Relaxation is trust, faith, love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness and understanding. In a state of relaxation, healing, maintenance and repair of cellular tissue occur. Emotional healing, internal peace and body wisdom are optimized. Relaxation means trusting things will be okay, even in the face of life’s stressful events.

We can evoke relaxation through pleasure, nourishment, intimacy, spiritual connection, laughter, patience, music, movement and rest. The list goes on, and we can each find our own strategies for enhancing our individual relaxation response. By optimizing our stress/relaxation physiology, we are better able to accommodate our personal, spiritual, and emotional growth. Just as the stress response varies from person to person, each of us has unique strategies that relax us.

Take time this weekend to make a few lists:

  • What stresses you?
  • What do you do to de-stress?
  • What gives you pleasure?
  • What nourishes you?

Can you reduce the effects of the stressors by incorporating more of the restorative things from your other lists? If you think your lists might help others, share them in the “comments” section below.

In my next post, I will address how stress and relaxation affect who we are as eaters, how we digest our food, and how we digest our lives.