We could ALL benefit from a LOT more R&R [“Relaxation Response”]
Here’s How to Unlock Yours in 4 Simple Steps:
We are all incredibly, chronically, and sometimes overwhelmingly stressed. Why are we here? How long are we here for? Who’s really in charge of this show and what’s the point of it all, anyway? These broadstroke existential questions are formidable (and often, frightening) on their own, yet ironically not even the tip of the stress iceberg that we as humans face on a daily basis. Now factor on top of this foundation of uncertainty the plethora of pressures we’re all subject to by living in a post-modern, capitalistic society: maintaining (and thriving at) our jobs, providing for our families, being good friends, great people, all while constantly improving upon our personal mental/physical/and spiritual well-being…The long list of stressors we’re expected to juggle and overcome is seemingly infinite — but therein lies the rub — as our capacity for stress most certainly is NOT.
That’s where our need for Relaxation Response (“RR”) comes in:
Our bodies were not built to exist in a perpetual state of fight or flight, and the act of doing so despite has all of us fighting countless (preventable) stress-based medical conditions: heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, asthma, obesity, migraines, gastrointestinal issues, the list goes on. While all of us express our symptoms of chronic stress in different ways, we are still, nonetheless, all stressed, (almost) all of the time, and subsequently could all benefit from a lot more “R&R” in our lives.
A technique developed in the 1970’s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson, “Relaxation Response” is a particularly effective means of turning off your fight-or-flight response and bringing your body back to pre-stress levels by slowing your breathing rate, relaxing your muscles, and reducing your blood pressure.
Dr. Benson describes RR as, “a physical state of deep relaxation which engages the other part of our nervous system—the parasympathetic nervous system— [producing] an autonomic reaction elicited by a mental device (aka a “mantra”) and passive attitude, that has been used for altered states of consciousness throughout various religious traditions and cultures.”
It’s further described by health.harvard.edu as “a profound state of rest that can be elicited in many ways, including meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation.”
But no matter how YOU choose to elicit a RR within yourself, each of the aforementioned means requires the same 4 simple components:
- A quiet environment
- A mental device (aka a “mantra”)
- A passive attitude (accepting without resistance)
- And a comfortable position
The key to achieving a RR lies in shifting your focus from stressors to deeper, calmer rhythms — having a focal point to anchor onto is essential.
But equally essential (and the common denominator between eliciting RR through any of these activities) is “breath focus.” And as stated by Harvard Med, the first step in achieving that, is simply learning how to breathe deeply.
There’s many different phrases used to describe what it means to take deep breaths properly: “belly breathing,” “diaphragmatic breathing,” “abdominal breathing,” even “paced respiration” — but they all propose the same thing: consciously breathing in through your nose until your lungs are fully-filled and your lower belly rises. This not only slows down your heartbeat, but lowers and stabilizes your blood pressure, counteracting the toxic effects of chronic stress we all suffer. Unfortunately though, for the majority of people, deep breathing feels extremely awkward and unnatural.
Because as a society, our status quo of “beauty” revolves around one’s ability to present a “flat” stomach. So most of us, whether consciously or not, have made a habit out of constantly sucking in our stomachs by keeping our abdominal muscles in a perpetual state of contraction — making shallow breathing (or “chest breathing”) seemingly “normal.” Though while chest breathing may sadly be the current norm for the majority, it is not in fact “normal,” and only creates within us further tension and anxiety. Shallow breathing does this by limiting your diaphragm’s range of motion, preventing the lowest parts of your lungs from getting the oxygen levels they need. This oxygen deprivation can then lead to feeling short of breath, light-headed, and chronically anxious. If you’re one of the many people who identify with the habit of “chest breathing,’ breath focus may be especially helpful for you as it helps to increase concentration on slow, deep breathing and aids in the disengagement with distracting thoughts.
According to Harvard’s Health Blog, the steps to achieve breath focus are as follows:
- Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
- First, take a normal breath.
- Then try a deep breath: Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs.
- Let your abdomen expand fully.
- Now breathe out slowly through your nose.
As you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, blend deep breathing with helpful imagery and perhaps a focus word or phrase that helps you relax.”
Once you understand how to properly breath deeply and in a focused manner, you can then use that breathwork to unlock your relaxation response through a multitude of ways:
- Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong
- Repetitive Prayer
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Guided Imagery
For best results, don’t limit yourself — Switch it up! Keep it fresh! & use your intuition to determine which means is most effective for you, personally.
At the end of the day, our stressors aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Stressors are a non-negotiable constant in this world, but stress doesn’t have to be. We may not get a say in what happens to us, but we are the only ones who decide how those happenings affect us, and this life is too short (and too beautiful) to be spent in a perpetual state of fear. So the next time you feel yourself shallow breathing, tense, scared or otherwise anxious, just remember — YOU are in control, you don’t HAVE to be “stressed,” and whenever you inevitably are (because even the most mindful, conscious souls are still human), you always have the power to bring yourself back to your happy place with something as simple (and FREE) as your own breath.
Brought to you by the International Center for Breathwork.
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