If simply clicking onto the news makes your anxiety levels immediately skyrocket, you’re not alone. Between the health fears, social isolation, and disruption to routine caused by COVID-19 to racism to political divisiveness and more, 2020 has been a monumental year for stress. And all that stress is definitely not good for us. The American Psychological Association warns of “serious and long-lasting” mental health effects related to stress around the coronavirus pandemic (and that’s on top of any other stress you may be experiencing.) Stress has physical repercussions, too, says Meaghan Quarles, a health coach with Parsley Health. The effects can vary from person to person, but some common symptoms of chronic stress include headaches, sleep issues, hormonal imbalance, cardiovascular problems, and decreased immunity, she says. (As if you needed more to worry about.) While we can’t necessarily control certain stressors, the good news is that there are ways to control your physiological response to them.
How the relaxation response fights stress
Your stress response is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is split into the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. “The sympathetic nervous system is categorized by our ‘fight or flight’ response, which allows us to respond quickly in dangerous situations,” explains Quarles. “Blood flows away from our GI tract and to our heart and extremities, while processes such as digestion are put on the back burner.” This is useful when you’re actually in danger, but when you’re under continuous, or chronic stress, it becomes harmful.
The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, puts your body into a “rest and digest” state where it’s fully relaxed and cellular repair and healing can happen, says Quarles. Sounds ideal, right? Here’s the excellent news—you can actually activate the parasympathetic nervous system, turning off the physiological response to stress. Doing this will elicit the relaxation response, which is the physical reaction that your body has to mindfulness meditation. The relaxation response, defined as a “physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress,” was named in the 1960s by Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
This relaxed state doesn’t just feel good, it’s actually good for you. “Immediately after eliciting the relaxation response, markers such as blood pressure and resting heart rate lower,” says Quarles. “The relaxation response also encourages the release of calming neurotransmitters such as GABA. These signals encourage muscles and organs to slow down, which increases blood flow to the brain.”
How the relaxation response can help keep you healthy
Stress and anxiety are unavoidable; there’s simply no way to get through life without experiencing stressors both small and large. But the way you respond to those stressors can make a big difference in your physical and emotional health, says Quarles. And since we can’t avoid stress altogether, we need to do things that counteract the effects of chronic stress. “Studies have shown that immediately following meditation, blood pressure and resting heart rate are lower and heart rate variability is improved, which is the best indicator of recovery. Consistent meditation can also improve cholesterol markers, reduce hypertension, improve immune function, balance hormones, boost cognition and decrease inflammation at the cellular level,” she says.
A 2008 study in the journal PLoS One found that the relaxation response can even impact your genes. Researchers found that people who used the relaxation response induced anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory gene expression changes when compared to a control group. These changes “may counteract cellular damage related to chronic psychological stress,” the authors say.
Meditation and the relaxation response may also help you stay in control of your anxiety levels, promote a sense of well-being, and improve the mind-body connection. A review in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology reported that mindfulness meditation can help treat depression, improve anxiety, and help relieve pain and improve the quality of life in people with chronic pain disorders.
6 ways to elicit the relaxation response
In his work, Dr. Benson describes a very simple set of steps to elicit the relaxation response. Basically, you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax all of your muscles, breathe deeply through your nose while paying attention to your breath, say the word “one” silently to yourself with each exhale, and repeat for 10 to 20 minutes. Ideally, you’d do this once or twice a day. That’s one way to induce the relaxation response, but other breathing, meditation, or even daily life activities can also do it:
Breathing exercises, such as the 4-7-8 breathing pattern, can invoke the same sense of calm. Inhale deeply and fill your lung for four counts, hold for seven, and then exhale for eight counts. If you’re interested in developing a deeper practice, there are more formal breathwork practices you can learn from trained practitioners.
Apps like Ten Percent Happier, Headspace, or Calm can help you get comfortable with meditation and increase the time you can practice it, says Quarles. You can also learn to meditate through a program like Ziva Meditation or group classes, many of which are now offering options online.
Body scan meditations
A form of guided meditation, these help bring awareness to each part of your body. One study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that among participants who did eight mindfulness sessions a week for eight week, time spent doing body scan meditations, in particular, was associated with increased psychological well-being and improved reaction to stress. For free body scan meditations to try, YouTube is a great resource.
Repetitive motion like running (a form of moving meditation) or mind-body practices like yoga that separate you from your everyday thoughts can bring about the response. Other activities include swimming or biking.
Similar to the way repetitive exercise can help elicit the relaxation response, activities you lose yourself in like knitting or playing an instrument can also evoke the relaxation response if they help you break your train of thought.