Stress abounds in today’s culture. We think it’s normal. For people who seem constantly stressed, we don’t know how to regulate it very well. Author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, suggests people today are constantly activating their fight or flight (i.e. stress) response. This is why both performance and health suffer.
According to Burton & Raedeke (2005), when mind and body activation become too high (over stressed), performance suffers. This occurs because high activation leads to “excessive muscular tension and coordination problems, attention problems, and processing problems.” It short-circuits our abilities to function at optimal levels, both physically and mentally. According to Sapolsky and others, we elicit this response continuously in our daily lives. It hinders performance and significantly degrades our overall health. How does this happen?
The Stress Response
The stress response is a series of reactions in the sympathetic nervous system. Once a stressor is perceived, the hypothalomus in the brain sets off a chain reaction. Respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and pupil dilation all increase and blood vessels constrict. This enables us to fight or flee, as we deal with a momentary stressor, not day in and day out as we often do in our culture today. Living in this constant state of elevated stress is unnecessary. We need to regulate our bodies’ reactions to stress on a regular basis and also during performance moments.
How do we turn down our stress response and take control? In Hardy et. al (1996), researchers cite that athletes use a set of core psychological skills to help them perform at their peaks. This includes regulating their minds and bodies when it comes to stress. The authors highlighted that relaxation was an essential skill for any athlete to handle the pressures of competition and regular stresses of competitive sports. However, you don’t have to be an athlete to face pressure and stress, right?
The Relaxation Response
There are numerous techniques and strategies to reduce stress and increase relaxation. One of the best I’ve found directly opposes the effects of the fight or flight response and boosts both performance and health. The Relaxation Response, coined by professor, author and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, Dr. Herbert Benson does exactly that.
To take advantage of the Relaxation Response by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, regularly practice these 3 steps.
- Get comfortable and avoid distractions.
- Try to relax your muscles.
- Breathe through your nose and fill your lungs fully.
- As you exhale, repeat a calming word, phrase or even a number to yourself.
- Maintain an accepting mindset, not worrying about how well you’re practicing the technique.
- As distractions creep in (which they will), simply return your attention to your breathing and repeated word or phrase as you exhale.
- Continue for up to 10 minutes.
Benefits of The Relaxation Response
- Counteracts the negative effects of the fight or flight response
- Reduces the body’s activation level, which positively impacts future as well as immediate performance
- According to Psychology Today, the Relaxation Response helps “any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety disorders and others.”
Whether you are just trying to weather the tempo of life’s storms or preparing for a pressure performance, the Relaxation Response is a go-to for relaxation. As with any skill, your technique and the payoffs will only grow with practice. Don’t expect immediate relief under pressure if you haven’t been developing this skill every day. Schedule a few minutes each day to practice this phenomenal relaxation tool and boost your ability to regulate your mind and body. Take control today.
Question: When do you plan to use the Relaxation Response today? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.