Taking time to relax is vital to counteract the injurious effects of chronic stress on the body. Through the use of relaxation techniques, one can begin to reverse this cumulative, detrimental process, and engage the body’s tremendous potential for self-healing.
Herbert Benson, M.D., Harvard Professor and stress reduction specialist, first coined the phrase “Relaxation Response” in the early 1970s to describe the physiological and mental modifications that take place when one consciously relaxes. In The Wellness Book he indicates that the relaxation response is “a physiological state characterized by a slower heart rate, metabolism, rate of breathing, lower blood pressure, and slower brain wave patterns.”
Here are some of the beneficial changes that take place when your body is in the Relaxation Response:
1. Heartbeat and respiration are slowed.
2. Oxygen consumption is noticeably reduced.
3. The expiration of carbon dioxide drops.
4. Blood pressure stabilizes.
5. Blood lactate levels (which some researchers believe are linked to panic attacks) decline sharply.
There are numerous tested techniques which encourage this state of intense rest and release. This article concentrates on rhythmic, deep, diaphragmatic breathing.
This vital stress management tool is “right under your nose” and as close as your breath! When you focus on slow, deep breathing, the in-breath fills your lungs and causes your lower belly to expand as the diaphragm drops downward into the flexibility of your soft, relaxed belly.
Try it right now:
Relax your body and let go of any signs of tension. Let your tongue and jaws relax, lower jaw releasing away from the upper jaw. Drop your shoulders away from your neck. Let your abdomen relax and become softer, freeing yourself of all tightness in that part of your body.
Notice your breathing just as it is. Inhale. Take a deep full breath, and allow the breath to move all the way down into the lower belly.
You can imagine that you have a small balloon in the belly. As you breathe in, let that balloon smoothly inflate. As you exhale, feel how the balloon gently collapses.
Take in several of these measured, soothing, deep breaths.
Then begin to become aware of a slight pause that naturally occurs at the end of each out-breath. Allow yourself to remain here without being in a hurry to take the next inhalation. Allow the next inhalation to surface when your body is ready to receive it.
Take pleasure in the calming tranquility of the pause. Float peacefully in the stillness of this pause between exhalation and inhalation, allowing the breath to happen of its own accord. Let the breath breathe you!
If you are just learning diaphragmatic breathing, you can learn it more easily by lying on your back with your knees bent. In this position, you can more easily feel “soft-belly”, diaphragmatic breathing. Notice how the belly rises with inhalation and falls with exhalation. Let the breath initiate that movement. You can also rest your hands on your abdomen and let yourself breathe into their warmth. Feel how the weight of the hands goes up with inhalation and drops with out- breath. A thick book placed upon the abdomen will accomplish the same thing.
An additional great way to find deep belly breath is to lie face down on your belly. In this position, the only way you can breathe is diaphragmatically!
Finally, it can sometimes be useful to let yourself sigh out loud with the out-breath. Sounding is a wonderful way to release stress and tension.
Deep, diaphragmatic, soft-belly breathing has a profound effect on the body. Just three minutes of soft-belly breathing can shift your body out of Stress Response mode into the Relaxation Response! And if you can remain in that Relaxation Response for just 20 minutes each day, you will go a long way toward counteracting the injurious effects of chronic stress on your body.