Learning to Relax is Your Key to Wellness
Learning to Relax is Your Key to Wellness
by Robert Wright, Jr., Ph.D., COFT
According to recent studies and surveys by the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Census Bureau stress and stress burnout has been called America’s number one health challenge. A 2013 study by the American Institute of Stress revealed that 77% of Americans report regularly experiencing physical symptoms caused by stress, and 73% report regularly experiencing psychological symptoms caused by stress. This same study also reported that 76% of Americans cited money worries and work as their leading causes of stress, and that almost half of all Americans reported lying awake at night unable to sleep due to stress.
A recent American Academy of Family Physicians study concluded that 2 out of 3 of all office visits to family physicians were due to stress-related symptoms. Likewise, a Veterans Administration Normative Aging study found that men high in optimism were less than half as likely to develop heart disease compared to men who had a pessimistic outlook. A study in the British Medical Journal concluded that work-related stress can double your risk of dying from heart disease. Studies by the American Institute of Stress report that workplace stress causes approximately one million U.S. employees to miss work each day; this stress costs American businesses over $300 billion every year in lost hours due to absenteeism, reduced productivity, and workers compensation claims.
Several recent studies by the Mayo Clinic conclude that long term activation of the body’s “fight-flight” stress response known as chronic stress can potentially disrupt all of your body’s processes. This increases the likelihood that you will face health problems such as anxiety disorders, depression, heart disease, insomnia, memory disorders or difficulty concentrating, and weight gain. Repeated overactivation of your stress response throws your endocrine system out of balance which results in too much adrenaline and cortisol being produced by your body. If unattended to, chronic stress can have disastrous results, leading in worse case scenarios to heart attack, stroke, suicide, and unprovoked violence.
Here is a short list of some of the conditions caused by or aggravated by stress: anxiety, asthma, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, constipation, depression, diabetes, diarrhea, eating disorders, heartburn, high blood pressure, infertility, insomnia, loss of sex drive, migraine headache, obesity, peptic ulcer, skin problems, substance abuse, and weight gain or weight loss. Due to the potentially devastating and debilitating health consequences ignoring chronic stress can have, it is imperative to learn healthy ways to cope with the stressors in your life. This is why it is so important to learn how to relax since doing so can reduce your chances of developing stress related illness and disease, and perhaps even lengthen your lifespan.
Increasing your awareness of the potentially debilitating role chronic stress can play in your life is the first step towards wellness and healthy well-being. Recent research indicates that any activity which generates a Relaxation Response has positive effects upon your health. These health benefits include lowering your blood pressure, heart rate, metabolism, and rate of breathing. The Relaxation Response was discovered by Herbert Benson, M.D. Simply put, the Relaxation Response is a protective mechanism which counteracts the ravages of stress and is the physiologic counterpart to the “fight or flight” stress response which is activated whenever we feel threatened.
In lay terms, we can simply think of the Relaxation Response as a state of calm where both your mind and body are relaxed. This is known as the state called homeostasis where the body is functioning in a balanced way. When our body experiences homeostasis it is in a state of equilibrium. This feels good and safe, as the body and mind functions harmoniously. When you experience the Relaxation Response many helpful and very beneficial neurochemicals such as oxytocin, serotonin, endogenous morphine, and dopamine are released into your bloodstream. This includes spiking your natural nitric oxide rhythm and reducing your cortisol levels which enhances wellness. Thus, generating the Relaxation Response boosts your nervous and immune systems which can lead to robust health.
If learning to relax is the key to wellness, how do you do that? Try as they might, surveys show that many Americans have difficulty relaxing. Here are some proven strategies for generating a Relaxation Response. Self-Care: Take time to smell the roses. Learning to “slow down” and pause during the day – even for brief periods – is a proven strategy for lessening stress. Doing so acknowledges the hectic pace of life, and your need to have a regimen that systematically addresses the potential ravages of stress.
Stress Management System: Finding and using a stress reduction system which fits your personality and lifestyle is an important key to learning to relax on a daily basis. Any stress management system you use should be fun and you should look forward to using it daily. Here are some well-known examples of stress management programs which teach you to relax and keep you relaxed: Alexander Technique, Aromatherapy, Art Therapy, Biofeedback, Feldenkrais, Holotropic Breathwork, Ideokinesis, Massage Therapy, Meditation, Music Therapy, Neurofeedback, Open Focus Technique, Pilates, Tuning Fork Therapy, and Yoga.
Self-Talk: Several studies indicate that people who have a positive attitude tend to live longer and have a better quality of life. Eliminating negative words and thinking lifts your mood by changing what you are paying attention to – most modern research shows that what you pay attention to and give time, energy, and focused concentration to, expands. Therefore, focusing on positive self talk can simultaneously make you feel better and improve your health.
Gratitude and Forgiveness: Recent studies cite the multiple positive effects of meditation concluding that expressing gratitude and forgiveness lead to states of compassion for yourself and others. Letting go of old grudges releases negative energy and painful memories.
So yes, there is hope, you can relieve and reduce your stress by taking steps to make lifestyle changes that generate a Relaxation Response. Doing so will improve your mood and the overall quality of your life.
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