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more articles by Gerson, Henry D. , MD  |  author's bio

Stopping the Stress Reaction

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 relaxation response?

The relaxation 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?

The relaxation 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.


Can relaxation help with health problems?

Numerous 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 relax?

Activities that 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?

The second 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 activities.


You can learn more, and perhaps begin a personal stress management program, by accessing on-line or community resources.


Dr. 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.





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