We’re all familiar with aspects of the stress response – perhaps our heart is beating fast, our chest feels tight, we might feel nauseous or irritable or overwhelmed. Stress affects us differently – some people suffer more physical symptoms, others struggle mentally or have difficulties with interpersonal relationships. When stress becomes chronic, it’s likely to impact on all areas of our lives – our bodies might show a range of stress-related symptoms, our mind isn’t thinking clearly and we might feel teary or anxious, and our relationships can become increasingly strained as we feel overwhelmed by the demands of others when we’re barely managing our own.
Yet stress isn’t all bad – the right amount of stress can motivate us to focus, achieve and develop new skills and resilience. It’s when stress becomes chronic and relentless that it starts to have a negative effect on us. Fortunately, even though we might be more familiar with the stress response at the moment, we can also learn what has been called by Herbert Benson the ‘relaxation response’ – our body’s ability to relax and regenerate.
There are quite a number of different techniques which can induce the relaxation response – some of the best known are progressive muscle relaxation, where we systematically tense and relax groups of muscles throughout our body, and also guided imagery, where we are guided on an imaginary journey to a beautiful, restorative place. Focusing on a word during prayer (such as peace or shalom), practising yoga or Tai chi, even knitting and running, can all activate the relaxation response.
Mindfulness, in its meaning of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, doesn’t try to directly evoke the relaxation response. For example, rather than going on an inner journey to a beautiful place, a mindfulness meditation might involve an open, accepting awareness of difficult emotions and painful body sensations. However, because mindfulness has become a buzz word and is ubiquitous now, the distinction between practices involving the relaxation response and those involving mindfulness has become blurred. This is a shame, because mindfulness is only one aspect of what can be helpful for us – there are ancient traditions of contemplative prayer, mantra meditation, visualisation and so on which also deserve our attention and respect. Also, by throwing just about everything under the banner of mindfulness, we dilute what mindfulness can actually offer us.
Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will also help us to be more relaxed, as we become less caught up in the difficult aspects of our lives. Yet I wonder if some people might actually be more interested in learning the relaxation response – it meets their needs for managing day-to-day stress more directly, and gives immediate positive feedback.
Mindfulness is a particular way of approaching the world – to develop its non-judgmental stance requires good teaching and regular practice. We can all have experiences of mindfulness as part of our everyday lives, but to make mindfulness one of the central aspects of how we live requires more than a little dabbling here and there. On the other hand, we can all benefit from increasing our experiences of the relaxation response, by including practices in our lives which balance the stress response with the relaxation response.
Weekly practice idea:
What helps you feel relaxed? Write down a list of five or more activities you find relaxing, and choose one of them to practise this week. How does it feel to make time for the relaxation response in your life?