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Wellness

How to Chill Out: Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques

MELYNDA BARNES, MD, Clinical Director, Rory, VP Medical Affairs and Research, Ro

The stress response, better known as “fight-or-flight” response is our body’s response to perceived threats. During the time of our ancestors, this response was activated in life or death situations like stumbling upon a lion or disturbing a beehive while foraging for food. Nowadays, even though we aren’t fighting lions, our stress response is still on more times than not. 

How does the “fight-or-flight” response work?

For the fight-or-flight response system to work, our bodies have to be able to detect danger. We are all equipped with an “alarm system” that helps us sense danger, which, in turn, activates our stress response (1). The problem with chronic stress is that it causes the sensitivity of the alarm system to increase. That means that your stress response is easily triggered, activating every day, or never really even turning off completely. 

Luckily stress management techniques can help you reset your body’s alarm so that it is not as sensitive, allowing your stress response to turn off, allowing your body to go back to its natural resting, relaxed state (1). 

We know that chronic stress affects the body’s normal physiology and can have long-lasting negative effects on our health, which makes these findings more important than ever. 

Stress Management Techniques

One of the most useful things that you can do is identify your stress triggers (1). Right now, you can probably think of a few things that stress you out: traffic, working late, waiting at the DMV.   Triggers are usually events or experiences that cause you to feel angry or anxious or overwhelmed. They can even cause physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pain or heart palpitations. 

Here are some techniques that you can use to help deal with triggers once you have identified them(1,2):

  • Positive Self-talk 
  • Avoiding triggers (as much as possible)
  • Break down big problems into smaller more manageable problems
  • Deep breathing, meditation, and yoga
  • Activity: Go for a walk, working out
  • “Sleep on it” 
  • Ask for help

If you find it hard to identify a particular trigger, you can still use the techniques above whenever you feel stressed. People who work in high-stress jobs can incorporate these techniques proactively to help them manage their day to day stress.

What is the relaxation response?

The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. As the perceived “danger” dissipates the body’s physiology slowly starts to return to normal. As you relax, the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, begin to decrease. Prolonged elevated cortisol is one of the main contributors to adverse health outcomes in people with chronic stress. In addition to decreased cortisol, your heart rate decreases, as well as your respiratory rate and blood pressure. 

When we are anxious or stressed, circulation to our hands and feet decrease as the blood is routed to vital organs which can lead to cold hands and feet. When you relax, you’ll notice that your hands and feet feel warmer as the circulation to your extremities goes back to normal. As you relax, you also start to gain focus and clarity, which is one of the many benefits of the popular relaxation technique, meditation. 

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga are immensely popular strategies for turning off the stress response and turning on the relaxation response. Meditation and deep breathing have been studied as coping and therapeutic strategies for patients with conditions ranging from PTSD(4) to chronic pain(5). 

Using the relaxation response as a therapeutic intervention is not new. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine published an article in 1975 about the relaxation response and how it affects the body. The authors found that changes to our nervous system occur alongside physiologic changes during the relaxation response (6). The good news is that most relaxation techniques can be done at your desk or in your car. And within minutes, your body can be back to a more relaxed state and you’ll feel better. 

References

1. Stress Management. The Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/basics/stress-basics/hlv-20049495 Updated March 2017.  Accessed August 4, 2019

2. The Definition of Relaxation Response. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-relaxation-response-3145145 Updated June 2019. Accessed August 6, 2019

3. This is What Happens to Your Body When You Actually Relax. Reader’s Digest. https://www.rd.com/health/wellness/what-happens-to-your-body-when-you-relax/ Accessed August 5, 2019.

4. Gallegos AM, Crean HF, Pigeon WR, Heffner KL. Meditation and yoga for posttraumatic stress disorder: A meta-analytic review of randomized controlled trials. Clin Psychol Rev. 2017;58:115–124. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2017.10.004

5. Hilton L, Hempel S, Ewing BA, et al. Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ann Behav Med. 2017;51(2):199–213. doi:10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2

6. Benson, H., Greenwood, M. M., & Klemchuk, H. (1975). The Relaxation Response: Psychophysiologic Aspects and Clinical Applications. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 6(1–2), 87–98.