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The Gaia Centre for Holistic Therapy,

17 Frederick Street,

Loughborough,

Leicestershire,

LE11 3BH


Tel: 01509 551513


email: admin@gaiaholistics.co.uk

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Relaxing Stones

(see also our Meditation and Tiredness pages)

Relaxation

It is surprising how little people know about the art of relaxation. Relaxation is more than getting away from the work-a-day grind; it is more than the absence of stress. It is something positive and satisfying, a feeling in which one experiences peace of mind. True relaxation requires becoming sensitive to one’s basic needs for peace, self-awareness, thoughtful reflection, and the willingness to meet these needs rather than ignoring or dismissing them.

An inability to relax is often caused by stress, a consequence of your body's physiological reactions to external events. Stressful situations can be pleasant (supporting your sports team), unpleasant (an accident), physical (running), mental (worrying over past or future events), emotional (a bereavement), prolonged (business problems), or instantaneous (cutting a finger). Faced with these or similar situations the body tenses as part of the "fight or flight" response (see below). This response is essential to the survival of animals in the wild. In the modern world, however, faced with a dangerous situation it is not always appropriate to stop and fight, nor can you just run away.

THE STRESS RESPONSE

How does your body respond to stress?

Although the situations or events that elicit stress vary from one per¬son to another, physiologists have long known that people undergo the same general response to stress. Imagine that you are quietly reading when a nearby fire alarm goes off by accident. You are frightened by the sudden sound, and you jump from your chair and wonder whether to call the fire brigade. You react to the ringing bells in roughly the same way you would if you were to jump into a pool of cold water or be frightened by a large dog.

This reaction is the first stage in what Hans Selye, a pioneer in research into the physiology of stress, called the General Adaptation Syndrome. Selye believed that this syndrome is a response to almost any stressor. According to Selye, the syndrome occurs in three stages - alarm, resistance and exhaustion. The alarm stage produces changes in the brain and endocrine system. It is perhaps the most dramatic and best known physiological response and is part of the group of reactions called the fight-or-flight response.

What is the ‘fight-or-flight’ response?

Named by physiologist Walter B. Cannon at Harvard Medical School in the 1920s, the fight-or-flight response swings the body into physio¬logical high gear in preparation to confront a threat (‘fight’), escape from it (‘flight’), or try to repair injuries resulting from these actions. The response is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates a discharge of the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline from the adrenal glands. These two hormones prepare the body for action and help produce a wide range of changes in the body. The changes can include a near-shutdown of the digestive system, improved visual perception and muscle response, as well as elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, together with increased breathing and heart rate.

What happens after fight-or-flight?

Continuing the scenario above, realising that there is no emergency, you settle down and continue reading, trying to cope with the sound of loudly ringing bells. After a while, though, you become so annoyed and agitated that you cannot continue reading.

If a stressor persists for more than a brief time, the body adapts to it by entering the stage of resistance. During this phase, the body's systems return to normal, but they remain alert to respond to the stressor. If the stressor is intense or long lasting, the body eventually enters the third and final stage, exhaustion, at which point it is no longer able to resist the stressor. The body then becomes vulnerable to dysfunction and disease.

When you are in a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is clearly useful. It may also serve you when confronting a non-threatening challenge, as in an athletic competition, or meeting a deadline at work. But in modern society, the fight-or-flight response is often provoked when it is neither needed nor useful - in an argument, for example, or while you are waiting in a long queue at a supermarket checkout counter. Your body is in a heightened state, but it has no way to release its pent-up energy. You cannot fight the next person in the queue, nor can you run and leave your shopping behind. Moreover, without alternative methods of coping with stress, stifling the alarm reaction can be physically and psychologically damaging.

Unfortunately, you cannot run away if you are in the driving seat of a car or in an overcrowded commuter train, nor can you flee financial trouble, divorce, or city noise. Instead, stress is internalised. The unexpressed anger, irresolvable anxiety, and frustration become trapped and cause depression, nervousness, and irritability. These in turn cause more negative situations until they are expressed as physical, "psychosomatic" illnesses, e.g. hypertension, ulcers, muscular pain, aches, neuroses, and breakdown. Prolonged stress simply runs your body down, in the same way as a machine wears out. The extra sugars and fatty acids released into the bloodstream, if not burned up with violent exercise, can be converted into cholesterol and give rise to atherosclerosis and other circulatory disorders. Environmental factors, especially noise, uncomfortable living or working conditions and crowding can cause stress. Misdirected energy (as in constant bad posture), colours (such as red), and working in opposition to your natural rhythms are other contributory factors to stress.

Three great resources for relaxation and stress reduction the Gaia Team recommends:

The Meditation Program

The Power of Breathing

Five Rituals

Rushed

In the sports world, we often hear of ‘relaxed’ play. However, it is not true that top players experience a "complete relaxation" when they play, at least not in the sense that many people think of when they use the word "relaxation". People tend to think of a very passive state, as we might think of in going to sleep, or being hypnotised. Often, this elusive state of "relaxation" is described as such a thing, which is very misleading to those trying to grasp it. It makes them wary of any sensation of "effort" in their playing, and this wariness makes them reject certain approaches and inner sensations that are quite appropriate, and would, if pursued, lead to further development of ability.

THE SECRET OF RELAXATION

There  exists a common misconception about the word relaxation. The following will attempt to bring your understanding of this subject up to a higher level.

First of all, understand this: relaxation is not a state, it is not a condition that you experience, it is an activity; it is something you do. The failure to perform the action of relaxation does result in a state or condition, which we might call "discomfort", or chronic tension. The state that results from performing the action of  relaxation may be called "poise", balance, or "comfort in action. Relaxation is something we are either good at, or not so good at. Relaxation, like so many abilities, such as thinking, is something some people never do, and again, like thinking, it is something many people believe they are doing when they are not doing it.

Thus, in common with millions of other people each year, the continuing pressure of everyday life takes a heavy toll on your physical and mental well-being. Medical research into the origins of common diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, and headaches shows a connection between stress and the development of such ailments. In the area of mental health, stress frequently underlies emotional and behavioural problems, including nervous breakdowns. Various environmental factors, from noise and air pollution, to economic disruptions, such as unemployment, inflation, and recession, can make living condition even more stressful. These conditions, in turn, can create a greater need for mental health services to help people cope more effectively with their environment.

In the course of a day, people are frequently distracted from their activities by personal problems; conflicts with family members, disagreements with employers, poor living conditions, boredom, loneliness, to name just a few. It is easy to get so preoccupied with living, thinking, organising, existing, and working that you disregard your need for relaxation. Most people who have grown up in our production-oriented society feel guilty, or at least ill at ease, when they are not actively involved in accomplishing tasks or producing things. Even vacations become whirlwind productions that leave you exhausted after concentrating too many experiences into too short a period. Such behaviour undermines the value of vacation time as an opportunity for diversion, calm, restoration of your energies and gaining new experiences.

Systematic relaxation can be an effective way to reduce the physiological arousal of such stress. Relaxation reduces unwanted arousal and allows the body and mind to stay on "an even keel”. The "carry-over effect" means that through regular practice of systematic relaxation, your system will become conditioned to respond with lower autonomic arousal to stressors, even at times when you are not actually engaged in a deliberate effort to relax. Just as regular, vigorous physical exercise can condition the cardiovascular system, so can appropriate relaxation-training condition your mind/body system to respond to events in a healthier and more productive manner.


STRESS REDUCTION

Relaxation can be brought about by a wide variety of methods. These include:

WHAT ALL STRESS REDUCTION METHODS HAVE IN COMMON

All stress reduction techniques generate this response, marked by physical and mental features that contribute to good health. These include a decrease in oxygen consumption, blood pressure, muscle tension, breathing, and heart rate. Brain wave patterns are also altered to elicit a state we commonly think of as "peace of mind”, during which we can let go of worries and distracting thoughts: the brain waves known as "alpha" become dominant. Dr. Benson distils four components common to all stress reduction techniques: a quiet environment, a comfortable position, a passive attitude (letting it happen rather than trying to make it happen), and a mental device. He describes mental device as "a sound, word, or phrase, repeated silently or aloud; or fixed gazing at an object”.

INVOKING THE RELAXATION RESPONSE:

To get maximum benefit and the carry-over effect, relaxation must be practiced at least once each day, for fifteen to twenty minutes. It is best to use a regular time of day, and to relax after, not before vigorous physical exercise. The following is an example technique for initiating the ‘relaxation response’:

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed.
  2. Pay attention to your breathing, and repeat a word, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
  3. When you notice your mind wandering (it will), just notice it and passively bring your attention back to your breathing.
  4. Practice for approximately 20 minutes every day (or at least 3-4 times per week). Don't set an alarm, but sit with a clock in view if necessary.

CONCLUSION

Unfortunately, some people pursue relaxation with the same concern for time, productivity, and activity that they show in their everyday life patterns. Far too few people know how to turn off their body clocks and gain satisfaction out of just being instead of always striving. The secret in getting the best results from attempts at relaxation is simple: Find those activities that give you pleasure and, when you pursue them, commit your energies to mental and physical well being. If your diversion results in an artistic product, musical skills, further education, a better physique, or whatever, that’s great. But remember that relaxation, not achievement, is your main reason for participating in the activity.

REFERENCE

Benson. H. (1975) The Relaxation Response Avon Books: New York



RELAXATION RESPONSE

You may be familiar with the term "Relaxation Response”. Dr. Herbert Benson, who wrote a book by the same title (Benson 1975), coined this phrase. Just as we have the "stress reaction" as a one of the body’s built-in response systems, so there is innate “relaxation response”. The relaxation response undoes what stress has been doing to you. The relaxation response brings about decreased muscle tension, lowered heart rate and blood pressure, a deeper breathing pattern, calming of the belly, and a peaceful, pleasant mood. The problem we face in managing stress is that the stress reaction is more easily elicited than the relaxation response. The stress reaction happens immediately without any effort on your part. A loud noise at this moment would startle you, and the stress reaction would speed through your body. A stress reaction happens automatically while the relaxation response must be purposefully sought and brought under control. While the relaxation response will occur naturally as when you sit on the beach watching the ocean; hectic modern society does not give us many chances for such natural elicitation. To control our stress we must engage in an intentional practice of creating the relaxation response.

If you require further information about relaxation,

or the various methods of invoking the Relaxation Response,

please feel free to contact us.