I have spoken about this before, when we had the first wave and the first lockdown, and I was reminded of this recently, as I was reading an email by the Dr Marty Rossman, who specialises in mind-body medicine. It is the importance of practicing deep relaxation in times of heightened stress.
In our lifetime, there are never been a time like this for continuous, unpredictable, and often disheartening stress. The unrelenting stresses of fear of illness, isolation, loss of jobs, loss of our life the way we knew it, worry for the health of our closed ones, elderly parents and mental well-being of our children is getting to a lot of us.
Two types of stress
Stress researchers call this Type 2 stress: it is multifaceted, continuous, often vague, and there is little we can do to resolve the situation. It is not like Type 1 stress, fighting a tiger or running away from it.
Type 1 stress is over quickly, either we get eaten or we escape from the tiger. In animals in the wild, for example zebras, that are faced with Type 1 stress, we observe a natural process of coming back into balance after escaping a danger. They might shake intensely for a while, which allows them to shake off the stress, and then they go into a deep restorative state of relaxation in which their body repairs itself and recharges itself.
Type 2 stress is different, it does not seem to end, we can not quickly fix the problems. But there are things we can do to protect our mental and physical health: eat well, exercise, stay connected with people and important causes (even if socially distancing), spend time in nature, listen to music, read inspirational books, and very importantly, put our body and mind in deep mental and physical relaxation on a regular basis, as this state promotes health and healing. For good self-care, immune support and cultivation of resilience, regular deep relaxation is one of the most important things you can do right now. It’s easy and it is a pleasure to do.
When we sit down to meditate, one of the first things we do is see if we can bring some relaxation to the body, ease the obvious areas of tension in the body and the mind. We might take a few deeper breaths, as the breath is the body’s natural relaxant. In your daily meditation practice, I encourage you to spend enough time doing this.
How relaxation can help
A good analogy is seeing the body under stress as being like a battery. 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 more healthy 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.
Relaxing practices: Progressive Muscle Relaxation, the body scan and smiling
For more information on Progressive Relaxation and the body scan, please refer to the article “How do we practice relaxation”.
Thich Nhat Hanh calls the practice of smiling “smile yoga”. He suggests bringing a slight but real smile to our lips many times throughout the day, and when we meditate. He writes “a tiny bud of a smile on your lips nourishes awareness and calms you miraculously. (…) Your smile will bring happiness to you and to those around you.”
Modern science confirms the power of a smile to open and relax the body and the mind. The muscles used to smile send a biochemical message to the nervous system that it is safe to relax the stress response of fight, flight and freeze.
When we smile, our heart and mind soften, we breathe more deeply, and the body relaxes.
I invite you to try it now, and see what you notice in you as you smile .