Let’s talk about stress. We hear constantly that stress is the modern epidemic. We know that it is the major contributor to the six leading causes of death today: heart disease, cancer, lung disease, accidents, cirrhosis and suicide. Chronic stress leaves its victims with visible abnormalities in their brain matter, as seen on brain scans, causing a disruption in a brain cell’s ability to communicate, as well as to memory loss and decreased cognition. And, on top of all that?? Stress simply sucks. It is the houseguest that just won’t leave.
The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that works automatically to keep our organs and their systems functioning all by themselves, without any intentional input from us. It tells the heart to beat and push blood through the body, the respiratory system to breathe and distribute oxygen, our gut to digest food, the skin to sweat and cool us, our kidneys and intestines to filter blood and get rid of waste, and so on. It is divided into two sections: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, which work to keep us in balance, depending on our needs and on what we’re doing at the moment. The sympathetic system triggers the “Fight or Flight” response, and the parasympathetic system acts to stabilize the body when the threat is over.
Here’s how it works:
Our ancestors saw a saber-tooth tiger coming for them and their family. They needed to protect themselves and their family and then get the heck out of there. The sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response to help them do just that. It causes the heart to beat faster (sending MORE blood all over the body so that the legs can run fast and the arms can swing punches); the respiratory system makes you breathe faster (to get more oxygen into your blood and to your muscles); the entire gut stops digesting (rerouting blood from the full stomach to the rest of the body); pupils dilate (to bring in more light and improve vision); etc.
Now, when the saber-tooth tiger is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and tells the body that it’s going to be okay. It is your mom stroking your hair after a bad day at school. It slows your heart rate and returns breathing to normal, lets your gut finish digesting what was in there, shrinks your pupils, and stabilizes all your systems. It is the “rest and digest” response.
But, what happens when we are chronically stressed? There are no saber-tooth tigers today, but the “threats” on us seem even greater: the unrelenting accessibility through our phones and computers- emails, texts, deadlines, requests and demands- allowing and requiring instant response from us, larger communities, heavier traffic and longer commutes, larger cars, instant gratification, the pressure to ‘fit in’, the strain of raising children in this new fast world, instant credit and college costs and more and faster and faster. There is no turning off, no vacation, no respite. We are not allowed to step down off the lifeguard stand and turn the whistle and flotation device over to someone else. There is no one else, there is just us.
We have found ourselves in an era in which we are living without that natural balance. A state of incessant stress which keeps us perpetually in “Fight or Flight” mode. So, what’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what.
Go back and look at the actions of the sympathetic nervous system. During stress, our heart rates and blood pressure go up, right? Well, if we never come out of fight or flight, our blood pressure stays up, resulting in hardening of the arteries, a thickening of the heart and heart disease. When the stomach never gets the chance to digest the food we eat, it tries even harder to do its thing by producing more stomach acid, causing, that’s right, stomach ulcers and reflux.
The logical answer is to, more frequently, turn on the parasympathetic response. But, how do you turn on a system that is, by nature, automatic? Our bodies will not naturally come out of the fight or flight response until our nervous system is confident that we are no longer in danger and our bodies and minds are at rest. We can’t make our stomachs digest or our hearts beat slower or our blood pressure lower, but through conscious relaxation, we can do exactly that.
“Conscious Relaxation” as coined and described by Herbert Benson, MD, is achieved by practicing three things: Slowing the Breath, Relaxing the Muscles, and Quieting the Mind. It is simply lying down and breathing slowly and deeply, relaxing, but not while sleeping or zoning out in front of the television, and quieting the mind by letting the mind and its thoughts slow down and not get us riled up.
By slowing the breath, the heart rate is stimulated by the vagal nerve to slow down, and in turn, it becomes easier and more natural to breathe slowly and deeply. By relaxing the muscles, blood can flow more easily through blood vessels and to the muscles, allowing for better circulation. When the parasympathetic nervous system realizes we are safe, blood is rerouted back to the stomach and intestines to encourage digestion, which now requires less stomach acid to be produced. Quieting the mind keeps this entire process in check. Slowing the breath and relaxing muscles is great, but it’s not going to do much when you are still solving life’s problems in your head.
And it is quieting the mind that may be the most difficult for many to imagine. But, with practice, you can. You will never stop thoughts from floating, or racing unbidden, through your mind, but with practice, you can learn to let the thoughts come through and leave again without paying them much attention. Like having the TV on in the background but not following the story that’s on. If you can let the thoughts come through without attaching emotion or judgment to them, you are on your way. That is all that quieting the mind involves.
So, if you’re tired of not sleeping well (pun intended), not wanting to go on medication for your gastric reflux or your high blood pressure, frustrated with your chronic headache from the tight neck muscles you have day and night, try conscious relaxation. Just three steps (slow the breath, relax the muscles, quiet the mind), absolutely nothing to lose, and it’s completely free.
You can do it the rest of your life, without side effects, without paying memberships or buying equipment.
It is the easiest thing you can do for your health.