The health benefits of learning to relax

Learning to relax deeply the body and mind is necessary to help re-establish or maintain our natural state of equilibrium. We are born with a natural ability to be still. Young children often do it. They can sit quietly in a dreamy state, completely relaxed and content. Often we shake them out of this state: “Stop daydreaming and pay attention”. So we are trained to keep thinking, to keep our minds active, and to not take time out. This is exacerbated by the pace of modern society and 24×7 access to information through technology and the internet. 

The Fight or flight response

You may already be familiar with the fight or flight response, the instinctive, automatic response of our body in reaction to a fearful, threatening situation.

For example, if you suddenly were attacked by a bear, it would be normal to gasp in fright, and to feel a big discharge of adrenalin surging through the veins, an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate…Your body chemistry would change rapidly to prepare you to react to the threat by either fighting or running away. This is a very useful self-preservation response and it occurs instinctively. It prepares us for a period for intense physical activity: you get away, you get beaten up or you win the flight. Once the emergency is over, the body chemistry returns to normal activity levels, the body starts relaxing as it releases the tension.

The source of many medical problems nowadays is that the fight and flight response is being triggered off by complex life situations which are often chronic, and don’t provide us with a clear cut ending, and so no opportunity to release the built up tension. For example, we may be facing financial issues, or unemployment, or difficult work relationships, complex family dynamics. Every time we go to work for an overbearing boss, or even think about him, the fight or flight response is aggravated.  Major changes take place in our body chemistry and these become chronic. We experience chronic tension, raised blood pressure, chronic headaches, stomach ulcers etc…

All stress is not negative, a little stress is good for us to help us perform, feel challenged and excited. But too much stress for too long, too much pressure, and we are pushed beyond our capacity to cope satisfactorily, we start to become fatigued, and if the pressure continues we become exhausted and burnt out. At that stage we are likely to feel irritable, short-tempered, depressed.  If these signals are ignored and we still push on, attempting to meet an increasingly stressful challenge, we will soon encounter illness: skin rashes, digestive issues, ulcers, high BP… Major breakdowns may occurs: heart attacks, strokes, cancer….

Studies have shown that 2/3 of all visits to GPs are for stress related illnesses. 

How relaxation can help

A good analogy is seeing the body under stress as being like a battery (Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson, Meditation an in-depth guide). As stress builds up, the inner tension is like a charge building up in the battery. When a charged battery is earthed, the current runs out. Similarly, when a stressed person practices the relaxation technique, that stress is released, regardless of where the stress came from. There is an immediate change in the body chemistry, as it returns to a healthier state of equilibrium.

The physiological changes observed in people using the relaxation technique are: decrease in muscle tone, heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure, blood lactate and cortisone levels, while blood flow to the major internal organs increases, as well as peripheral circulation. 

At the same time we can notice changes in the brain’s electrical patterns, the brain waves. During the relaxation practice, an electroencephalogram shows an increase in the intensity of slow alpha waves and occasional theta waves activity. These changes indicate a state which is quite different from sleep or ordinary relaxation, they indicate a new state of consciousness along with a state of physiological rest that is much deeper than sleep.

In association to these changes, the immune system is able to return to normal functioning levels, reactivating the inner healer, and helping fight disease more efficiently.

In order to be beneficial, the relaxation technique needs to be practiced regularly, otherwise the old patterns of stress, anxiety and tension will resurface. With practice comes an increased clarity of perception and thinking, increased creativity and efficiency and an improvement in most psychosomatic diseases. 

The more we practice, the more familiar we become with this state of physical and mental relaxation, and the faster we can reach it. For some, after a while, this allows them to sit down, close their eyes and feel a wave of relaxation and calm moving right through their body. with this sensation, the mind turns inwards, away from their life preoccupations, and they enter rapidly into stillness. 

It is recommended to practice 10 to 20 minutes twice a day for stress management and basic health requirements.

You can learn about different relaxation techniques in the article on the practice of relaxation.

Reference: Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson, Meditation an in-depth guide

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