by Dr. Barry D. Elson
We are each endowed with a finely tuned nervous system which helps our bodies react to different situations.
If we go into a dark room, our pupils will dilate (open up) so that we can see better.
If we exercise, our hearts beat faster to pump more blood to our muscles, which are demanding more oxygen.
A million times a day, the body “reads” what is happening and the nervous system reacts by signaling various parts of the body to make appropriate changes to adapt to the new conditions.
It’s easy to see how we could not survive without this adaptive ability. In fact, all forms of life must have some form of adaptive mechanism. And we can trace the evolutionary development of this adaptive functioning from the simple chemical response of a blue-green algae to sunlight to the complicated web of neurological responses which we as vertebrates possess.
The spontaneous responses are coordinated by the Autonomic Nervous System, which acts as a switchboard with two main trunks, the “sympathetic” and “parasympathetic” divisions. These orchestrate the various body responses so that they work in harmony.
If we are confronted with a stressful stimulus, the sympathetic response is activated: the pupils enlarge, the skin sweats copiously, the heart beats faster and more forcefully, the breathing tubes (bronchi) open up wider, the liver releases sugar into the bloodstream, metabolic rate increases, blood pressure goes up, and our hair stands on end.
Extra blood goes to the brain and muscles, but the digestive system and kidneys shut down. This is called the “Fight or Flight” response.
We can see how this was as appropriate response for a cave man when confronted by a saber-toothed tiger – it enabled him to think and run fast – or stand there and fight.
Unfortunately, for many of us today, it’s still “a jungle out there.” In a fast-paced, competitive world we may repeatedly encounter situations which stimulate the Fight or Flight Response.
This causes the adrenal glands to secrete increased levels of hormones (called epinephrine and norepinephrine) to maintain a higher rate of nervous activity. This causes chronic tension. Even when the initial stressors are gone, it may be difficult for our minds and bodies to relax.
Fortunately, there is another part of the nervous system, the parasympathetic, which helps us to relax. Parasympathetic stimulation will cause the pupils to contract, slow down the heart, and encourage digestion to take place.
It used to be thought that we could have little control over the regulation of our autonomic nervous system, but medical research over the last few years has indicated that this is not the case.
Turn on Your “Relaxation Response”
There are a number of ways we can switch ourselves over from a stress-reacting to a relaxing mode.
The most obvious first step is to try to remove unnecessary causes of stress from our lives. This will usually require taking a look at how we structure our daily commitments, and making sure we allot ourselves enough relaxation time. This means taking adequate vacation time or long weekends when we can, as well as taking a certain amount of time each day just to relax.
Learn How to Meditate
It doesn’t take much time to switch our nervous system around, but consistent practice is most important. There are a variety of techniques which can make a measurable physiologic change within minutes, and can have a favorable long-term effect on stress symptoms if regularly practiced as little as 15-20 minutes per day.
One well-documented method is called “progressive relaxation”. You can learn this on your own, but it is often helpful to have someone who’s experienced guide you through it the first few times.
Find yourself a quiet place with a firm surface to lie down on, and make sure you won’t be interrupted for a little while. Close your eyes. Then, starting with the toes of one foot, tighten the muscles of each part of your body, hold it for a few seconds, and then allow that part to completely relax. Work your way slowly but surely all the way to the top of your head and then, if you like, progress back downward to your toes.
Many people will feel a floating sensation, and a state of very deep relaxation will follow. During this period, it may be useful to just observe the rise and fall of your chest with each breath. When it’s time to awaken, just count backward from five slowly, and allow your eyes to open. Often, you will feel greatly refreshed – alert, but very relaxed – on returning to normal activities.
Over the last fifteen years, a number of relaxation techniques have been studied in neurophysiological laboratories. The methods vary widely, but many result in similar physiological changes – a lowering of metabolic rate and blood pressure, changes in skin resistance consistent with deep relaxation, and decreases in muscle tension. Brain waves often demonstrate a unique pattern consistent with wakeful relaxation – different from the patterns seen in either sleep or alert activity.
A Harvard researcher named Herbert Benson has called this special state the “relaxation response.” He and others first discovered it by studying various ancient forms of meditation.
For More, See Benson’s book The Relaxation Response
Interestingly enough, similar changes could also be brought about by following a very simple technique: sitting with the eyes closed and mentally repeating a single word over and over for 15-20 minutes.
Theoretically, this allows the mind to shift from the customary pattern of reacting to each and every stimulus and go into a state where it does not need or desire to react. It’s like recharging your nervous system’s batteries.
Back to Basics – Exercise and Diet
Physical exercise is also essential for relieving stress. This allows the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles to increase in a beneficial way, often decreasing the body’s tendency to react in stressful situations. Even twenty minutes per day can have a long-term physiological effect.
Finally, it is important to make sure that your diet is giving you the nutrients you need to encounter stress successfully. Adequate amounts of protein are necessary to synthesize the enzymes needed for smooth metabolic functioning. Minerals, particularly calcium, magnesium, and zinc, are necessary to form cofactors to help these biochemical reactions to take place. B-complex vitamins and vitamin C are depleted by stress reactions, but need to be replaced to keep the adrenals and other glands functioning well.
Barry D. Elson, MD graduated with honors from Yale University, then received his MD degree from the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. He completed his residency at the University of British Columbia.
Dr. Elson has served as a Professor of Medicine and Director of the Clinical Medicine training program at the Pacific College of Naturopathic Medicine. He is the founder and Medical Director of Northampton Wellness Associates.
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