switch on to relaxation

‘The doctor of the future will be oneself.’

Albert Einstein

Most of us, without realising, are creatures of habit. We like things like structure, uniformity and balance. Some of us love routine and repel change. As individuals, we crave our own state of normal – the familiarity that makes us feel safe. Whether its eating the same foods, working in the same place with the same people, drinking the same wine or taking the same routes. Often, we repeat the same patterns of behaviour, use the same language, keep our appearance the same –  even repeat the same thoughts every day as we become conditioned to the perceived safety of the life we create by forming habits.

Stress is perhaps unavoidable – just part of life. If we experience lots of stressful situations, it’s important to acknowledge our responses to stress can become habit forming – part of our normal state. Science is now beginning to show us how our bodies crave a normal state of being so if negative stress becomes part of this then we simply crave more of it to feed our habit. In the abstract, how we manage stress could be likened to learning to ride a bicycle. Learning to cycle is often undertaken in the knowledge or anticipation of the odd bruise or abrasion here and there. Simplistically, if we fall off we simply get back on, learn from the experience and adapt the way we think about changing our technique to ride injury-free. By focusing the mind to condition the body to ride better creates a new healthier habit which is automatically updated to our cellular memory. With practice, we feed our new habit to ride proficiently. We know that prolonged stress is unhealthy, so how do we switch off the body’s stress response to form healthier habits? If it’s not possible to be stressed and relaxed at the same time, then it makes sense that we learn how to invoke a state of normal relaxation.

The ‘relaxation response’ is a helpful way to turn off the ‘fight-flight’ response and bring the body’s cellular physiology back to pre-stress levels. The relaxation response was first cited by Dr. Herbert Benson after decades of research showed how a physical state of deep relaxation activated the parasympathetic nervous system. There are several ways to elicit relaxation and these include things like healing imagery, visualisation, progressive muscle relaxation, massage, yoga and tai chi. Relaxation can also be achieved by removing our self from everyday thought to distract or deter the mind to a more calm and peaceful state. Like stress, relaxation is also subjective and can be achieved in different ways appropriate to individual needs, circumstances and environment. This said, focused breathing is perhaps one of the most effective ways to elicit the relaxation response within just a few seconds and this actually forms part of all the aforementioned stimuli. Relaxation allows us to experience a decrease in: heart rate; blood pressure; rate of breathing; and muscle tension. Our immune system is boosted, sleep patterns can improve, stress is alleviated, mood and optimism are elevated and all of these things help to reduce the effects of anxiety and depression. This results in better self-care, improved health and enhanced well-being.