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Stress Management for Health Course

What is the Relaxation Response?


"The best time to practice relaxation is when you don't think you have the time to practise relaxation."

The relaxation response is a physical state of deep relaxation.   From session 1 you will be aware of the fight/flight response, which is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system when we are under excessive pressure.  Fortunately there is another branch of the autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system, which has an opposite response to the fight/flight mode called the relaxation response.   This turns off the fight/flight response returning the body and its biochemistry back to pre-stress levels. (See comparisons between fight flight response and relaxation response in this session).

Turning off the fight/flight response and turning on the relaxation response results in decreases in heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, etc,.  As soon as you decide that a situation is no longer threatening the brain stops sending emergency signals to the brain stem, which in turn stops sending panic messages to the nervous system.  A few moments after you stop sending your body danger messages, the fight/flight response burns out and your physiology and biochemistry return to pre-stress levels. 

The term The Relaxation Response was coined in the late 1960s by Cardiologist Professor Herbert Benson MD, who spent more than 30 years researching stress, stress management, the relaxation response and its health benefits. 

The Relaxation Response is the counterbalance mechanism to the fight/flight response.  Professor Bensons research found that stimulating an area of the hypothalamus gland in the brain results in the triggering of the fight/flight response and the opposite occurs (the relaxation response) when the hypothalamus is stimulated in relaxation.

The relaxation response can be stimulated by any relaxation technique such as, progressive muscle relaxation, massage, tai chi, guided imagery etc.

Contrary to popular belief, relaxation does not simply mean doing nothing.  Many people mistakenly believe relaxation is sitting with our feet up and that watching the television, listening to music or reading a book are relaxation techniques. But this is not so, they are more forms of distraction activities, and although useful they will not induce true relaxation.  The relaxation response is a totally different state (the sleep state is also different to relaxation.)  You do not get the same beneficial biochemical and physiological changes while watching TV or reading a book as you do when practising relaxation techniques.  Research using EEG monitors to show brainwave patterns of people watching television and others using relaxation techniques, show that practising relaxation causes the brain to switch to alpha type brain waves that indicate relaxation.

We are often told to learn to relax but we are not taught how to relax.  Relaxation involves carrying out a relaxing, but purposeful activity; specific techniques such as relaxation breathing or muscle relaxation can produce rapid results when used properly.  They can be used just before or after a stressful incident, to produce a calming effect.


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