Imagine a typical day during hockey season: You wake up at about 6:30 in the morning. Breakfast at 6:45. School bus picks you up at 7:05. You spend around 7 hours at school, mostly focused on learning. You may get a couple of breaks during the school day, but for most of it, you’re sitting in a chair, paying attention. Or trying to pay attention. The school bus drops you off at home around 4:15. So far, you’ve been awake and functioning for about 10 hours. This is a long, long time. By the time you get home, you are probably a bit tired, mentally drained, hungry, possibly sleepy. But! You can’t take a nap because you have to get about an hour of homework done before you have to get to hockey practice. Practice is at 6. By this time, you’ve been awake for about 12 hours. You eat dinner in the car, on the way to practice. Practice for an hour. By the time you get home, it’s 8. You still have an hour of homework left to get done.
Does this seem stressful to you? It kind of should… How do you go on with this kind of schedule, day after day, for about ten months? Fairly solid mental skills and discipline. And a lot of support from mom and dad and anyone else who knows and cares about you.
The Stress Response vs. the Relaxation Response
Re-read the title of this post. Just relax! Does that work?
NOT REALLY :D
It kind of has the opposite effect, doesn’t it?
You may know that your body is brilliantly equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that repair broken cells, kill cancer cells, fight infections, and generally keep your body healthy. But did you know that these self-repair mechanisms can be flipped on – or off – with the power of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that begin in the mind?
Your nervous system operates in two different states – the “fight-or-flight” stress response, when the sympathetic nervous system dominates, and the relaxation response, when the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge. The fight-or-flight response causes the heart rate to increase, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, your blood pressure increases, your digestion stops, your muscles tense, your circulation changes, stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline, among others) are released in your blood stream, and your thoughts speed up and focus on a target, usually a negative one.
When this is happening, our bodies feel unpleasant and we look for ways to feel better.
The average person experiences 50 stress responses per day, and every time you have a fearful thought or a negative belief or a resentful feeling, you trigger stress responses that fill the body with poisonous stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. But when you have an optimistic belief or a loving thought or a feeling of compassion, you activate relaxation responses, and the body can then do what it does best – heal itself.
Balancing The Nervous System
It’s all about reducing stress responses and adding in relaxation responses. Reducing your stress requires taking a good look at your thoughts and your responses to situations in your life to determine whether there are better ways to respond or feel.
Here are a few scientifically-proven relaxation response activators:
• Playing with animals
• Diaphragmatic breathing
• Generous giving of time or gifts
• Creative expression
• Attending religious services
• Practicing gratitude
• Nurturing touch
• Listening to music
Big game coming up? Worried about your dad? Serving at tennis? Your blood pressure rises and your heart speeds up. You can feel your muscles tense and your stomach churning. Your adrenal gland is pumping out cortisol and adrenaline to speed up your heart and breathing, improve hope you use your energy, and trigger your immune system. You feel stressed.
How to Relax: Simple Techniques
Here are a few simple techniques to relax your body, and your mind will follow. They can be done anywhere.
• Cleansing breaths. Breathing is essential to all relaxation techniques. Breathe from your stomach, not from your chest. As your stomach expands, you'll feel your ribs move up and down as your diaphragm drops and your lungs expand. I find one long full breath followed by consciously slower breathing slows my heart. As I breathe, I continue to maintain my shoulders and arms in a relaxed state.
• Puff. Still tense? Puff out your cheeks. It relaxes all your facial muscles and forces you to take big breath from your stomach. This works particularly well if you're in pain or you're so tense you can't concentrate and aren't able to relax and breathe slowly yet. After puffing your cheeks and letting out that quick breath, your tongue should naturally rise to the roof of your mouth, relaxing your jaws. FEEL that relaxation. That's what you're trying to hold and maintain.
• Rinse. Before tests or presentations or when you're feeling that pressure piling on, it can be really helpful to wash your hands. Washing your hands in warm water - particularly letting warm water flow over your wrists - slows your heart. Why? Tension reduces circulation to your periphery and focuses it on your core and brain. That's why your hands get cold. Warming your hands relaxes the arteries in your wrist, increases circulation, and slows your heart. Just like slower breathing. Feel that relaxation flowing from your hands through your shoulders and up to your jaw.
Learning to relax on the go can help short term when you feel that rise in tension and can help you focus on what you need to do next. The more you practice, the more effective these techniques can become. Doing them often is one of the best habits to cultivate to reduce stress in your life.