Stopping the Stress Reaction
By Henry Gerson, MD
In the last Health
Watch column, I described how routine stress events in our lives trigger
the fight or flight reflex. The automatic activation of this “stress
reaction” over and over throughout the day negatively impacts our physical and
psychological health. However, just as there is a stress reaction, there exists
a relaxation response.
What is the
response is a state of rest that turns down the physical and emotional
responses to stress. It decreases our heart rate, blood pressure, rate of
breathing, and muscle tension. The first key to stress management lies in
bringing the relaxation response under our control.
Why is learning
the relaxation response good for me?
response reduces tension in the body and allows you to recover energy. Relaxing
also diffuses anger and anxiety, promoting rational thinking and supporting
healthy attitudes and relationship skills.
help with health problems?
stress-related aliments improve with regular practice of relaxation. These
include anxiety, insomnia, headache, and chronic pain. The relaxation response
has been found to have therapeutic effects for numerous medical conditions
including high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, and heart arrhythmia.
Okay, how can I
directly help you relax include yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, and
meditation. Exercise is another good way to relax: recall the extended period
of relaxation that follows a good workout. Other effective relaxation
techniques include guided imagery, affirmations, and self-hypnosis. Activities
like listening to music, enjoying your hobbies, and nurturing yourself
spiritually or physically also balance against stress by providing low-stress
intervals in your routine.
Can I learn a
more direct practice of relaxation?
Yes, you can
learn a portable, effective, simple method to relax. Dr. Herbert Benson at
Harvard University developed a focused relaxation exercise that teaches you how
to elicit the relaxation response. This method utilizes what all the
traditional activities of relaxation have in common. It engages a natural
trigger that signals the body to relax.
There are two key
steps to elicit the relaxation response. The first step is repetition of
something: a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity. This requires
concentration. You can be still and silent, focusing internally on a mental
repetition; or you can be more outwardly active, engaged in repetitive movement
such as swimming or walking. The requirement is simply to concentrate on the
repetitive action. The second step is developing a passive disregard of the
everyday thoughts that come to mind. The point is to let go of active thinking
by becoming absorbed in the repetitive action. The attitude during the exercise
should be easygoing and nonjudgmental. The exercise is easy to learn, but
building it into a daily practice requires effort. It works best when it is
part of a daily routine and is practiced for 10-20 minutes continuously.
Are there other
things I can do to manage stress in my life?
component to stress management is learning to deal constructively with stress
events. By identifying your individual stress reactions you can use your own
creativity to plan ahead and cope better the next time a stressful event
occurs. I recommend taking time to review a stressful event from each day,
identifying the physical feelings and thought process involved, and then strategizing
on how both could be more positive.
The final piece
in the comprehensive approach to stress management is building a lower-stress
life. Stress will remain unavoidable, but it is possible to take proactive
steps to create a balanced, healthy lifestyle with time for relaxation
You can learn
more, and perhaps begin a personal stress management program, by accessing
on-line or community resources.
Gerson is an attending psychiatrist and medical director of the Behavorial
Health Services at Cayuga Medical Center. Community and corporate stress
management programming is developed through the Cayuga Center for Healthy
Living, located at the Island Health Center. For
more information on stress management, you can call the Cayuga Center for
Healthy Living at 607-252-3590.