An important step in fighting stress is learning to calm the mind and body. Among the easiest methods to learn are relaxation exercises. The goal of relaxation techniques is to produce a physiological response known as a relaxation response — a response that’s exactly opposite to the stress response.
Although an individual may relax simply by sleeping, watching television, or reading a book, relaxation techniques are designed specifically to produce the relaxation response.
Relaxation response is a term coined in the early 1970s by Harvard professor and cardiologist, Herbert Benson, to describe a physiological response that he found in people who meditate. The relaxation response activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls bodily functions such as digestion, breathing, and heart rate during periods of rest, relaxation, visualization, meditation, and sleep.
The Relaxation Response
When the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, creating the relaxation response, the heart rate is reduced and the heart beats more efficiently. Blood pressure is reduced. Blood is shunted toward internal organs, especially those organs involved in digestion. The rate of breathing decreases as oxygen demand is reduced during periods of rest. Sweat production diminishes, because a person who is calm and relaxed does not experience nervous perspiration. Production of digestive secretions is increased, greatly improving digestion. Blood sugar levels are maintained in the normal range.
While the sympathetic nervous system, triggered by the stress response, is designed to protect against immediate danger, the parasympathetic system is designed for repair, maintenance, and restoration of the body.
An Effective Breathing Technique
Producing deep relaxation with any relaxation technique requires learning how to breathe. Have you ever noticed how a baby breathes? With each breath, the baby’s abdomen rises and falls because the baby is breathing with its diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity.
If you are like most adults, you tend to fill only your upper chest because you do not utilize the diaphragm. Shallow breathing tends to produce tension and fatigue.
One of the most powerful methods of producing less stress and more energy is by breathing with the diaphragm. By using the diaphragm to breathe, a person dramatically changes their physiology. It literally activates the relaxation centers in the brain.
Here is a 10-step technique for learning diaphragmatic breathing.
1. Find a comfortable and quiet place to lie down or sit.
2. Place your feet slightly apart. Place one hand on your abdomen near your
navel. Place the other hand on your chest.
3. You will be inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
4. Concentrate on your breathing. Note which hand is rising and falling with each breath.
5. Gently exhale most of the air in your lungs.
6. Inhale while slowly counting to 4. As you inhale, slightly extend your abdomen, causing it to rise about 1 inch. Make sure that you are not moving your chest or shoulders.
7. As you breathe in, imagine the warmed air flowing in. Imagine this warmth flowing to all parts of your body.
8. Pause for 1 second, then slowly exhale to a count of 4. As you exhale, your abdomen should move inward.
9. As the air flows out, imagine all your tension and stress leaving your body.
10. Repeat the process until you achieve a deep sense of deep relaxation.
Dr. Michael Murray