Guest post by Mark Jones. Mark is a certified, 200-hour-level Brahmrishi Yoga instructor in training for the 500-hour-level certification. Mark is registered with Yoga Alliance®, the national education and support organization for Yoga in the U.S. He currently teaches yoga at our employee health & wellness center in Canton, Ohio.
Relaxation. It’s a word we hear more and more these days because life only seems to continue speeding up and we’re feeling the effects. In looking for ways to offset the effects stress brings to our bodies and minds, we know we need to relax. It’s a word we’re pretty certain we understand – but do we? Are our attempts to relax actually helping us?
If you’re reading this, you probably already have some preferred way(s) to relax. Some people nap or go for a walk, others vacation, while others parachute from airplanes. As long as the result is a lack of overstimulation, it’s all good. But do you know why relaxation is so important?
Relaxation = Homeostasis: the Balancing Act
Relaxation is homeostasis – the balanced state when body and mind are restored to optimal function. When our systems are in-tune with each other, we have health. "Dis-ease" appears when our systems are off-balance or in conflict. Homeostasis is tipped from neutral to non-neutral (health to non-health). It’s a balancing act.
Homeostasis is controlled by our central nervous system, which has two branches: voluntary and autonomic. Learning how to walk, talk, draw, juggle: these are examples of the voluntary branch. We set about to learn a behavior and, through trial, error and practice, we form neuronal pathways between our brains and muscles.
The autonomic branch is, as it sounds, non-voluntary or automatic. It has two sides: sympathetic and parasympathetic. One kick starts us into high gear and the other induces a state of mellowness. Both operate by regulating our internal functions – blood pressure, digestion, elimination, etc. When we perceive a situation as life-threatening, the sympathetic side can power us to safety via the “fight or flight” arousal response; if we’re receiving messages of a soothing nature (massage, a dim room, calming music or pleasant aroma), the parasympathetic side inhibits the sympathetic system. That’s the way we’re built: one system switches off when the other switches on. Both are automatic and have very specific responses based upon specific stimuli.
When certain bodily functions become hyper-activated, others (due to a process called inhibition), slow or shut down to heighten the effectiveness of the body’s hyper-response to the stress.
The cavemen (and women) who ran for their lives from the advancing saber-toothed tiger were effectively responding to a powerful hormonal surge, and their intense physical exertion used up the secretions, which were inhibiting digestion (absorption and elimination), immunity and reproduction.
Today’s stressors may be less obvious than an attacking carnivore, but their effects may be just as heightened. And while we may understand the situation isn’t life or death, our bodies may respond otherwise. Based on the severity of the situation or our perception of the severity, our brains order up high-octane cocktails to overcome the threat. As with what the cave people accomplished by running, these stress hormones need flushing before the system will restore to homeostasis.
Mental exertion, rather than physical, is a poor match for the sympathetic hormones coursing through our systems. The mind may recognize that we’re resolving the situation but our body doesn’t. Instead, it’s churning inside and this churning, if unabated, has side-effects.
What Happens When We're Stressed
Here’s what can happen during stress (and prolonged stress only intensifies the effects):
- Muscles – Tensed muscles can create or exacerbate existing skeletal misalignments. Spasms deprive muscles of oxygen, creating lactic acid, which initiates more contraction.
- Bones – a perceived threat depletes bones of compounds by recruiting them as fuel, reducing bone health. If cortisol remains in the blood stream too long, rebuilding of the bones is less likely to occur. Cortisol also weakens tendons and ligaments.
- Heart/Circulation – Stress accelerates your heart into hyper-activity. If sustained too long, arterial flexibility reduces, increasing the workload on the heart and arteries. Cortisol increases cholesterol, which serves as fuel during the stress response. Left to circulate in the blood stream, it can clog arteries and reduce blood flow, subsequently increasing the workload on the heart and precipitating heart disease.
- Lungs – Deep breathing, called abdominal-diaphragmatic breathing, induces the parasympathetic nervous system response. Sustained sympathetic arousal, unfortunately, increases thoracic breathing. Thoracic, or shallow, breathing sustains sympathetic arousal. (Side note: when stressed, the age-old solution is to breathe. Unfortunately, we’ve got it backwards. Thoracic breathing increases blood pressure by increasing pressure in the chest. The better solution is to exhale first and completely, squeezing the lungs as empty as possible. Then, let the inhale take care of itself – thanks to your autonomic nervous system. The lungs will be flushed with fresh oxygen – this oxygen can assist in calming the mind and detoxifying the body sooner. Repeat lengthening the exhales for a few more breath cycles.)
- Immune/defense – Adrenal hormones may help you perform super-human feats, but they deactivate specific immune defenses.
- Endocrine/hormones – Our endocrine and nervous systems have a built-in balance. If our nervous system is in a state of sustained agitation, the endocrine system (glands with ducts: thyroid, adrenal glands, etc.) will become off-balance – possibly resulting in hyper (over) or hypo (under) secretions – causing imbalances that may have long-term negative effects on health.
- Digestion/assimilation – Peristalsis moves food through the stomach and intestines for digestion and absorption. Contraction of abdominal and intestinal muscle reduces peristalsis, so digestion is impeded. Neuropeptide receptors in the lining of the bowels and neuropeptides in the brain are interrelated. Mental stress can create conditions in the bowels where inflammation and/or excessive secretions result in an acidic environment, creating corrosion and distress in the alimentary system.
Do You Relax Effectively?
Regardless whether or not you can identify your stressors, BOTH body and mind need to refresh from stress in order for homeostasis to restore. It’s a joint effort. Discipline is required to rinse both the body and mind. If you’ve taken your body out for a refreshing run after a tough day at the office, but your mind is compiling a to-do list, solving a work-related problem or re-hashing an unpleasant experience you had with someone, you may be sustaining the stress your body is under. If this cycle continues long enough, adverse conditions can begin to develop (hypertension, ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome). In short, you have a stress hangover.
Since I’ve been studying, practicing and teaching yoga for the past 12 years, I am much calmer – physically and mentally (and I find my memory has improved). It’s a practice that detoxes, lengthens and strengthens the body, simultaneously quieting the mind by focusing all energies – both physical and mental – on a single object (the pose) paired with a smooth, continuous and seamless circle of breath. As a result of sustained parasympathetic dominance, I’ve become more attuned to tension from stress invading my body, and I then act appropriately and swiftly. Yoga is an invaluable tool to help maintain a state of homeostasis.
Relaxation Strategies for Mental Refreshment and Physical Restoration
Tired From a Day's Work
If you’re mildly tired from a day’s work, try going for a brisk 30-minute walk. Free yourself by leaving the cell phone at home (or in your pocket, if you must keep it with you, but only accept important/urgent calls). If you’re fatigued, lie down somewhere comfortable and quiet and read for pleasure.
Colds and Flu
These come with a built-in solution – respect the fatigue and aches by resting. Reduced activity, including digestion, rests the body to assist with its immune response, so avoid overstimulation by eating simple foods and leave the television off. Facebook or Twitter are sensory overload.
If it’s a bone or joint, concentrate your healing time with meditation. Focus your mind on the current breath in your body: when it’s gone, let it go and turn your attention to the new breath entering. If it’s muscular, ice, rest and slow down; light movement can help you avoid painful stiffness. Either way, give extra attention to the other parts of your body during this time; engage and stretch muscles that might compensate or tense because of the pain elsewhere in the body. (If the majority of the body refreshes, this can actually help heal the problem areas sooner.)
Lingering stress hormones can seriously affect the body’s components. The mind can sustain that lingering – long after the stress is over. Select methods of relaxation that avoid multi-tasking or over-stimulation. If you’re jogging, permit yourself to be fully present during the jog.
On a good note, the effects of sympathetic inhibition (aka “relaxation”), which move the body’s systems back towards homeostasis, also linger. The more frequently you detoxify, the closer you’ll stay to balance.