The soothing system – Part 2

We’re probably all pretty familiar with the stress response (sometimes it might seem like our whole lives are spent responding to stress!), but perhaps we are less well acquainted with the relaxation response. This response has been described by scientists such as Dr Herbert Benson, who found that people who meditated had the opposite of the fight/flight response – the meditators had decreased heart rates, slower brain waves, and a slower rate of breathing. Dr Benson found that two key factors were involved in evoking the relaxation response – repetition, and disregarding other thoughts when they come to our mind. 95% of the stressors most of us face in modern life are in our mind, not a sabre-tooth tiger about to eat us. Yet these anxious thoughts can keep us trapped in the stress response, which places a huge allostatic load on our bodies, meaning our minds and bodies wear out more quickly.

Dr Benson looked at cultures around the world, and found that every single culture had practices which involved repetition, and were designed to interrupt the train of everyday thinking. These could be rituals, prayer, singing, dancing, making offerings, meditation. What’s more, recent research by scientists at the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine found that the very first time we switch on the relaxation response, genomic gene expression changes occur. We are born with a set of genes which we carry throughout our lives – these never change. However, our lifestyle and external factors determine which genes are expressed, and which ones are switched off. As Dr Craig Hassed says in the documentary The Connection by Shannon Harvey (which explains all this really well):

‘I just think it’s fascinating to be thinking you’re sitting in a chair practising a mind-body technique like meditation, and you’re doing genetic engineering at the same time. I find that extraordinary.’

There is one caveat – in order to really benefit from techniques which evoke the relaxation response, we need to practise them often, preferably daily. And rather than trying to ‘find time’ for these techniques, we’re much better off creating this time – consciously structuring them into our everyday routine. After a while, doing practices to evoke the relaxation response becomes part of our life – like having a shower, for example. Most people take a shower or bath quite regularly, not just when we ‘find’ the time for it or are in the right mood.

Meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, prayer and religious ritual can all be powerful ways through which to evoke the relaxation response. Think about activities you enjoy which leave you with a deep feeling of contentment. For me, this might be meditation, Tai Chi, gardening and bush walking. I enjoy watching TV, but can’t say I feel deep contentment afterwards – more likely a slight feeling of irritation.

Because our soothing and affiliation system is not related to our immediate survival, it is easily neglected. Yet so many of the aspects of life we value, such as contentment, close interpersonal relationships, healing, gratitude, appreciation and spirituality, all need this system in order to flourish. If a good life is a balanced life, then it makes sense for us to cultivate the soothing system, through regular practices which evoke the relaxation response and leave us feeling rested and regenerated.

Weekly practice idea:

What practices do you currently have which evoke the relaxation response? Do you do these regularly, or only intermittently? Would you benefit from more regular practices, and what might this look like in your life? What are some steps you can take this week towards a more balanced life?

Anja Tanhane