The relaxation response is the physiologic opposite to the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. Scientists have discovered that the long-term practice of regular relaxation activities can also change the expression of genes involved with the body's response to stress. As well as increasing overall ‘wellness’, this can counteract the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions such as hypertension, anxiety, diabetes and ageing.
A 2013 study from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital has taken the research one step further by actually identifying how this works in practice.1 It examined the expression of more than 22,000 genes in 51 healthy adults, both before and after doing relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga. Analysis revealed that the pathways involved with energy metabolism, particularly the function of mitochondria (the engines that make energy in every cell), were up-regulated during the relaxation response. Pathways controlled by the activation of a protein called NF-κB – known to have a prominent role in inflammation, stress, trauma and cancer – were suppressed after the relaxation response. The expression of genes involved in insulin pathways was also significantly altered.
As well as bringing about biochemical changes that provide long-term health benefits, relaxation activities can also improve your mood. Meditating for just half an hour a day, for example, can reduce anxiety, depression, stress and pain as well as improving quality of life, according to a 2014 review published in JAMA Internal Medicine.2
How to choose relaxation that’s right for you
It’s clear that incorporating regular relaxation into your daily routine not only increases your immediate sense of wellbeing, it’s also important for your long-term health. There are no shortage of classes and techniques offering relaxation as a benefit. The challenge is finding something that works for you – and then doing it regularly. When working with clients, we tend to suggest approaches based on their dominate mind state. For example if you feel:
- Wired, agitated or angry, you are more likely to find calming techniques such as meditation, deep breathing or guided imagery most helpful.
- Depressed, introverted or spaced out, activities that energise your nervous system such as yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong or Psychocals helpful.
Use your breath to activate relaxation
You can also use just your breath to activate an immediate relaxing and calming influence. As soon as you notice yourself start to feel stressed or overwhelmed, watch and become aware of your breathing. Aim to breathe a little more deeply, and with each breath in, imagine that you are inhaling calm and peace. Then when you breathe out, exhale any feelings of anxiety and tension. Feel your shoulders relaxing and wiggle about a bit to release any tension in your body. A few minutes of doing this can make you feel more relaxed and better able to face the challenges of your day. Susannah Lawson, co-author of The Stress Cure has recorded a breathing exercise that you can download from http://www.patrickholford.com/stresscure
Tune in to the benefits of meditation
Meditation has been growing in popularity in the West as a way to switch off from the stress of modern busy life and find inner peace. There’s also an ever-expanding body of research that supports multiple health benefits from regular practice. You don’t need to have any religious beliefs to meditate, and it can be an ideal way to make space for yourself in an otherwise hectic day.
There are many different techniques – from mindfulness and kindness-based practices to transcendental and Zen approaches, and many more besides. But essentially, most teach similar skills – that is to find a calm centre within yourself and to observe your thoughts and emotions while recognising that these are not who you truly are. “When I got that there was a part of me that could watch all these churning thoughts and feelings, it was a revelation,” says a client of ours called Emma. “I realised that there was more to me than my physical, mental or emotional aspects and that was deeply liberating.”
When it comes to stress reduction, meditation certainly seems to be effective. A 2014 review looking at the impact of meditation on healthy people found that: “Of the 17 studies, 16 demonstrated positive changes in psychological or physiological outcomes related to anxiety and/or stress”.3 An earlier review – which included 47 trials with some 3515 participants – found that mindfulness meditation can also ease pain, as well as anxiety and depression.4 Researchers concluded: “Clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program could have in addressing psychological stress.”
Compared to standard types of relaxation, studies have found that kindness-based meditation can reduce negative and increase positive emotions.5 Meditation can also reduce age-related cognitive decline,6 while further research finds it helpful for reducing insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder and fatigue. It can even have a positive effect on infant behaviours born to mothers who meditate while pregnant.7
The best way to learn is from an experienced teacher. One of my favourite teachers is Sally Kempton. Her book Meditation for the Love of It takes you through a process that teaches you meditation. You can also download a recordings of her taking you into meditation from her website www.sallykempton.com. Read her Special Report on the power of meditation.
Visualise a calming energy boost
Using visual imagery to focus your mind is another ......
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