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 hypertensionHypertension is more commonly known as high blood pressure…., 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 metabolismMetabolism is a term that is used to describe the chemical reactions that take place within the body’s cells. The body gets the energy it…, 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 proteinProteins are large molecules consisting of chains of amino acids. Proteins are essential nutrients for the human body – they are a building block of… 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 insulinInsulin is a hormone made by the pancreas. It is responsible for making the body’s cells absorb glucose (sugar) from the blood…. 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 form of meditation and can be a useful tool to help you relax. There are a huge range of themes to choose from and numerous recordings you can download from the internet or buy on CD to listen to and guide you. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can also make up your own, using calming images that you find particularly meaningful or restful. The trick is to stay focussed on the exercise and not let your mind wander into areas that retrigger stressful feelings (recalling an argument, difficulties at work, your overwhelming To Do list etc). If you find that happens, take a deep breath and return to your image.
Here’s a visualisation exercise many of our clients find useful.
- Sit down somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed and make yourself comfortable, then close your eyes.
- Now picture yourself standing on a beautiful beach. No-one else is around so the only sound you can hear are the waves gently rolling back and forth at the water’s edge. The sand beneath your toes is soft and golden and you can feel the warm sunshine on your face.
- You see a comfortable chair placed at the water’s edge. Walk towards it and sit yourself down. Sink back into the chair and feel it take your weight so you are fully supported.
- Stretch your legs out so you can put your feet in the water – feel the cool sea lapping over your toes. Now picture that vast sea, and appreciate the huge volume of nourishing energy it contains.
- You are now connected to that energy, and as you breathe in, feel that wonderful energy drawing up through your feet and filling your whole body.
- As you breathe out, let go of anything that doesn’t nourish you – stressful thoughts, anxiety, ailments, concerns, worries – gradually let these go with each exhalation. Imagine releasing them into the sea bit by bit, where they dissolve into nothing.
- Continue with this visualisation for a period of time that you feel is right (ten minutes is usually a good amount – but shorter or longer is also beneficial). Then prepare to leave the chair at the water’s edge, knowing that you will remain filled with that nourishing energy as you leave that beach behind. Know too that you can also return at any point in the future.
- Give yourself a few moments to bring your attention back to the room and slowly open your eyes and adjust.
This exercise has been recorded, so if you’d prefer to download an MP3 file you can listen to and guide you through this visualisation, visit patrickholford.com/stresscure.
If you like visualisation, you may also enjoy Yoga Nidra, which is an ancient yoga exercise designed to induce full body relaxation and a deeper sense of consciousness. One of my favourites is Swami Jakananda’s Experience Yoga Nidra CD (also available to download via iTunes), which has a choice of a shorter 20-minute exercise or a longer 45-minute one, plus a mini handwritten guide.
Emotional Stress Release
There are times when a particular stressful event can overwhelm you and make it hard to focus on anything else. At such a time, using the Emotional Stress Release (ESR) technique can be helpful. This simple yet surprisingly effective exercise can quickly reduce the distress you feel and help you find a wider perspective. It requires you to hold two points on your forehead just above your eyebrows that activate special reflexes to bring more blood to the frontal lobes of your brain. Here’s how to practice ESR:
- Close your eyes and lightly touch the ESR points (illustrated) with each hand, using the tips of your fingers.
- Focus on the issue that is causing you distress, or the feeling of anxiety or tension if you cannot pinpoint a specific event.
- Recall as much detail as you can – for example, run through the event or problem from start to finish, see it in your mind’s eye, remember the sounds of voices, the way people looked and the expressions on their faces – and most importantly, feel the emotions this triggered in you.
- As you continue to lightly hold your ESR points, you should notice that it becomes harder to hold on to the imagery, feelings and recollections, but as they seem to fade, keep bringing them back to mind.
- After a few minutes, you will find the event or feeling fades away and your mind begins to wonder.
- Remove your hands and open your eyes. You should feel as though the stress trigger or negative emotion is now defused and you feel calm and rebalanced.
This exercise can be used at any time of day, and is especially useful at night, when you wake up with stressful thoughts whirring round your mind that seem impossible to shift. If you are in a public place and don’t want to draw too much attention to yourself, you can use one hand to lightly touch both ESR points (in the same way you’d position your hand over your forehead to assess if you have a temperature).
This technique requires you to focus on and consciously relax each part of your body, starting at your toes and running upwards to your head. It may seem like a lot to remember, but it’s a natural progression from one body part to the next, so is easy to follow. You can also download pre-recorded instructions from patrickholford.com/stresscure.
- Start by lying down on your back on a bed (or the floor) and close your eyes. Watch your breathing and allow your breath to deepen slightly.
- Focus on your feet and sense their weight. Consciously relax your toes, then your ankles and feel them sink into the bed or the floor.
- Move your focus to your calves. Again, sense their weight. Consciously relax them and feel them sink into the bed.
- Now focus on your knees. Sense their weight and let them sink into the bed.
Now repeat this for each part of your body as you move upwards towards your head. Your focus could flow something like this:
- Your upper legs and thighs, then your buttocks and pelvis.
- Your abdomen (above your pelvis but below your chest).
- Your chest area.
- Next focus on your hands, your lower arms and then your upper arms.
- Move on to your shoulders. Then shift your attention to your neck.
- Focus on your face and skull. Then focus on your mouth and jaw. Pay particular attention to your jaw muscles and unclench them if you need to.
- Focus on your eyes. Sense if there is tension in your eyes or eyelids. Consciously relax them and feel any tension melt away.
- Focus on your cheeks. Consciously relax them and feel the back of your head sink further into the bed.
- Finally, scan through your body once again. If you find any part that is still tense, then consciously relax it and let it sink into the bed.
This exercise can be particularly helpful just before you go to sleep.
Summary: de-stress as part of your daily routine
Most days, we spend much of our time accumulating stress. So for balance, you also need to spend some time releasing this stress. Don’t think of relaxation as a lazy, indulgent waste of time. There’s now a huge body of scientific research to support both the short and the long-term benefits of regular relaxation and that reinforce that releasing stress is essential for our health. So pick a technique you like and that works for you – and commit to doing it regularly, and ideally every day.
If you fall asleep doing an exercise, that’s not a bad thing as it means you’re relaxing and letting go. But staying focused and awake is the goal. If you can’t find an exercise on these pages that works for you, then keep searching for something that feels right. There are also numerous experts in stress management who can provide one-to-one coaching. Susannah Lawson practices in London at the brainbiocentre.com and also in Petersfield – see www.susannahlawson.com for more details.
Do read The Stress Cure to find out other practical ways to relax, reduce stress and gain energy.
- K. Manoj, T. A. Libermann et al, Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways, PLoS ONE, 2013, Vol 8, issue 5, e62817
- M Goyal et al., ‘Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis’, JAMA Intern Med, 2014 Mar;174(3):357-68
- M. Sharma & S. E. Rush, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as a Stress Management Intervention for Healthy Individuals: A Systematic Review, Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 2014, 22 July pii: 2156587214543143. [Epub ahead of print]
- M. Goyal, J. A. Haythornthwaite et al, Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis, JAMA Internal Medicine, 2014, Vol 174 (3), pp.357-68
- J. Galante, J. Gallacher et al, Effect of Kindness-Based Meditation on Health and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2014 Jun 30. [Epub ahead of print]
- T. Gard, B. K. Hölzel & S. W. Lazar, The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review, Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 2014, Vol. 1307, pp. 89-103.
- K. P. Chan, Prenatal meditation influences infant behaviors, Infant Behaviour Development, 2014, Vol 37 (4), pp 556-561.
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