There’s no way to avoid stress altogether—pressures and tensions are a normal part of everyday existence. But repeated and prolonged stress can do damage to your mind and body. Learning to protect yourself from the effects of chronic stress may help you live a longer, healthier life, according to the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine of Massachusetts General Hospital in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
The consequences of chronic stress can be serious. An extensive body of research suggests that long-term stress, with its flood of stress hormones, can increase risk for many physical disorders, including stroke, gastrointestinal problems, high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, sleep disturbance, immune suppression, impotence, asthma and premature aging. Chronic stress, especially in people with high hostility levels, can lead to higher risk for insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, according to a study published in the October 2006 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.
Long-term stress can cause cognitive and mood problems as well: confusion, poor concentration, poor memory, depression, anxiety, anger and irritability are often linked to chronic stress. But research has shown that certain stress reduction techniques can effectively eliminate these problems, according to Herbert Benson, MD, Director Emeritus of BHI (BHI).
The Relaxation Response
“The harmful effects of stress can be mitigated,” says Dr. Benson. “You can do this on your own, simply by harnessing protective mechanisms that are part of the relaxation response—the physiological opposite of the stress response.
“The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes your physical and emotional responses to stress. It decreases your metabolism, rate of breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, and relaxes your muscles. There are a number of ways to achieve the relaxation response. A generic technique we teach at the BHI has two essential aspects—the repetition of a word, phrase, prayer, or sound; and the disregarding of thoughts that come to mind, with a return to repetition.”
The basic BHI relaxation response technique involves these simple steps:
* Pick a personal focus word, sound, prayer or short phrase—for example, “peace,” “one,” or “I am relaxed now.”
* Sit comfortably in a quiet place.
* Close your eyes.
* Progressively relax muscles from feet to neck.
* Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
* Assume a passive attitude and don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh well,” and gently return to your repetition.
* Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. Time yourself by peeking occasionally at a watch or clock.
* When you are finished, continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, gradually allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
* Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner.
Three Relaxation Response Techniques
The relaxation response can also be brought about through the use of techniques other than the basic Benson-Henry Institute method, including those listed below. Choose the technique that is most effective, or combine two or three techniques if that works best for you.
1. Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves concentrating on tightening and then relaxing your muscles to gradually achieve total relaxation. Sit or lie quietly in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and begin by inhaling as you tense the muscles of your face into a grimace, squeezing your eyes shut and clenching your teeth. Tense only the facial muscles, leaving the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and elsewhere in your body relaxed. After 8 to 10 seconds, exhale and let your face go slack, feeling the relief from the tension. Now inhale as you tense the muscles of your neck and shoulders, then exhale and relax.
Proceed in this way, alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles of your chest, abdomen, right arm and fist, left arm and fist, buttocks, right leg, left leg, right foot, and left foot. When you have finished the exercise, take time to enjoy how relaxed your muscles feel. Slowly open your eyes, and stretch before rising.
2. Breath focus: Sit or lie in a quiet, comfortable place. Take a normal breath, then—with your hand on your abdomen—take a deep breath, inhaling through your nose and feeling your abdomen expand fully. Feel how relaxed this deep breathing makes you feel. Now close your eyes and inhale deeply to the count of 10 as your abdomen expands, then exhale slowly and completely to the count of 10. Focus on your breathing and counting, putting other thoughts out of your mind. Repeat the exercise, continuing for 10 to 20 minutes. When you are finished, slowly open your eyes. Rest quietly for a moment before rising.
3. Guided imagery: Sit or lie comfortably in a quiet place. Close your eyes and relax, breathing deeply. Now imagine yourself in a peaceful place far from the stresses of everyday life, in a setting where you feel completely relaxed and happy—for example, lying in the warm sun on a deserted beach, or sitting on the front porch of your grandmother’s house. Put yourself completely into the scene. Feel the sand on the beach. Hear your grandmother’s voice. Use all your senses to conjure up a vivid image. Spend 10 to 20 minutes immersed in this relaxing environment, and then slowly count backwards from 20, feeling the peace and strength you have absorbed from your image. Open your eyes and lie quietly for a moment before resuming your normal activities.
“These techniques are very effective in reducing stress,” says Benson, “and they work especially well when coupled with efforts to adjust your attitudes and reactions to challenges in a way that promotes resiliency. For example, working to eliminate negative attitudes and focus on positive outcomes—seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty—can help you strengthen your ability to cope with stress and rebound from it.
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