“Americans are so restless that they have invented a rocking chair in which they move while they sit!”
-Anonymous French writer quoted by Norman Vincent Peale in “A Guide for Confident Living”
Babies, puppies and kitties are experts at it, professional athletes practice it, health care professionals advise it and all of us require daily doses of it for a long, illness-free life. Intelligent eating habits, abundant nutrition, hydration, and regular exercise are all crucial for good health, but when it comes to wellness, keeping it, increasing it and restoring it, nothing is more important than simple rest, repose and relaxation.
We all love to loaf, but to experience the full health benefits of relaxation, it’s important to practice a more active form of repose. I call it “deep relaxation”. When done correctly, it helps our minds stop racing and liberates our bodies from tension.
A daily , deep relaxation practice requires focus and intention; we have to really want to relax. While it may seem ironic, this kind of active relaxation has been shown to have many profound and lasting benefits, most notably, reducing stress and its symptoms by:
- Slowing the heart rate
- Lowering blood pressure
- Slowing the breathing rate
- Reducing the activity of stress hormones
- Increasing blood flow to major muscles
- Reducing muscle tension and chronic pain
- Improving concentration and mood
- Lowering fatigue
- Reducing anger and frustration
- Boosting confidence to handle problems
Reducing stress via deep relaxation is associated with even more significant health benefits, including:
Protecting Our Hearts
Since serious stress has been shown to heighten our risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks and other heart problems, research is unanimously in favor of relaxation for our heart’s sake. Many studies show that stress is as major a contributor to hypertension and heart attacks, as poor diet and lack of exercise.
Minimizing Our Risk Of Catching a Cold
Research conducted by Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who has been at the forefront of stress research since the 1990s, revealed that stress lasting more than a month, but less than six months, doubles the risk of catching a cold. Some of his more recent research concluded that stress impedes our bodies’ ability to fight inflammation, a key cause of impaired immune function and illness.
In one notable study, research showed that chronic stress in mice impaired the prefrontal cortex; that is the part of the brain involved in abstract thought, cognitive analysis and determining the appropriate behavior for a given situation. In addition, a number of studies have also found that stress increases the production of certain proteins in the brain that have been linked to Alzheimer’s, possibly accelerating the development of the disease.
Lowers Our Risk Of Stroke
A 2007 University of Cambridge study found that people who coped the best with stressful life events had a lower risk of stroke than those who couldn’t manage their stress. While it may be partly because the people who handle stress well often are healthy in other ways, like exercising regularly and not smoking, active stress management proved to be a vital component in warding off strokes.
Keeps Us Happy
Other studies have shown that the prolonged presence of the stress hormone cortisol in the body can reduce levels of the body’s feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine, which also help fuel our feelings of enjoyment. When these chemicals aren’t firing at optimal levels, we can become depressed.
Maintain A Healthy Weight
We’re all crazy about comfort foods; they are, after all, comforting! And certainly, indulging in them occasionally can make us feel better taken-care-of, but reaching for foods that are high in unhealthy calories and low in nutritional value can often lead to unwanted weight gain. Stress is associated with obesity; it stimulates the appetite amplifying effects of cortisol, which can make it harder to resist indulging in unhealthy foods.
Ease Acne And Other Chronic Skin Conditions
Research shows that stress seems to prompt skin to go into oil production overdrive, which can clog pores and cause blemishes. Cortisol is associated with blotchy, uneven pigment and dark spots. Other skin problems, like psoriasis, have also been linked to stress. A 1998 study showed that people who regularly meditated, one of the most powerful deep relaxation strategies, cleared up their psoriasis plaques more quickly than those who didn’t.
So clearly, relaxation is one of the best ways to stay healthy and improve our quality of life. To help you get started, I’ve listed some of my favorite proven relaxation techniques. It’s worth experimenting until you find the one(s) that work best for you:
This type of relaxation comes from within us and uses visual imagery (also called positive visualization). Try repeating words or suggestions in your mind, such as “I am going to let go of all my stress,” while imagining a peaceful setting and focusing on controlled, deep breathing.
Progressive muscle relaxation:
Slowly tense and then relax each muscle group, individually. By focusing on the differences between muscle tension and relaxation you’ll become more aware of when you are carrying stress in your body.
Other relaxation techniques include:
- Deep, rhythmic, slow breathing
- Tai chi
- Music and art therapy
So lighten up and relax! This may all seem like a lot to process and do, but take a deep breath and relax into it all. I know that you’ll be glad you did!