Herbert Benson, M.D., in his book The Relaxation Response, (which I haven’t read, just for the record) talks about the relaxation response as being the opposite of the “fight or flight” response. Characteristics of the relaxation response include slower and deeper breathing, reduced tension in muscles, improved organ function (i.e. digestion), improved cognition (memory, concentration, mental clarity), slower heart rate, and reduced levels of stress hormones. Essentially, it involves the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces calm, level, normal body functioning.
The ability to relax is a skill that can be learned and practiced; it’s not something we are necessarily born knowing how to do. Some of us have the misconception that relaxation just involves stopping physical activity, but that’s not the case. We can be sitting on a sunny, tropical beach sipping pina coladas and still have our minds churning away with stressful thoughts that keep us tense and anxious.
At brain school, each morning at the start of the day’s program, the patients convene with the therapists and go over what they have done in the past 24 hours to address the Basics. When it comes to relaxation, patients often report that they sat down and watched television. Depending on what they were viewing, however, that may or may not have actually been relaxing.
Watching the evening news, for example, often full of stories about crime, economic woes and other calamities, is hardly relaxing. Nor are television series that involve murders, personal conflicts and a myriad of other strife-laden situations (even if they are resolved within the hour…and despite numerous commercial breaks).
Activities that can be relaxing include various forms of meditation, guided visualizations, breathing exercises, listening to calming music, sharing quality time with friends or family, yoga, light reading, massage, a quiet walk – outdoors in nature if possible, engaging in hobbies or artwork, or maybe even a nice warm bubble bath.
There are books and CDs that describe or walk you through relaxation techniques, but it can be something as simple as closing your eyes for a moment and imagining a soothing scene like a calm lake or a peaceful meadow.
Relaxation may not come easily for us when we have not been in the habit of practicing it; it may take time to learn. But it is well worth the effort for the benefits of improved mood, better sleep, improved thinking capacity, greater confidence and calm, and relief to the nervous system. It becomes obvious as to why this is considered a Basic for recovery.
Still coming in the series: affirmations, journaling and reaching out.