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

Relaxation mindfulness

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?

Anja Tanhane