Relaxation and Health
The Basics about StressThere are certain things that we all know. Too much stress is bad for you. Relaxation is good for you. But often we fail to use what we know. To maintain good health, it is important to decrease stress and take time each day just to relax. Relaxation frees the mind and body to expend energy on restorative functions. This not only helps you have a better perspective on the stressors in your life, but actually enhances the functioning of various systems in your body. Specific relaxation exercises can help you to make the best use of the time you set aside to relax, especially at times that are stressful.
It has long been known that too much stress is bad for us. Stress causes the secretion of chemicals which maintain a high level of arousal of various body systems, which are then prepared to defend us against the danger. These chemicals do not always return to non-stressed levels as soon as the danger or crisis has passed. Thus, prolonged periods of arousal involve the expenditure of energy and result in ongoing depletion of the chemicals which maintain the functioning of the immune system (Rossi, 1993) This helps explain why extended periods of stress often lead to illness. Research has consistently demonstrated this effect. In one study, students were shown to have lower immune system function during and just after exams than after breaks and before exam time (Glaser et al, 1986). Performing relaxation exercises regularly so that you have a ready tool to use during periods of stress can help prevent this effect.
Benefits of RelaxationThere is also a good deal of scientific research which demonstrates the benefits of relaxation. The most entertaining example of this was a study in which the purpose was to show that using complex visualizations based upon films depicting the details of the immune system would enhance immune system functions (Hall, Minnes, Tosi, & Olness, 1992). To enhance the validity of their work, the researchers included a control group which only practiced relaxation exercises without the film or the imagery of the immune system. However, the results did not show that the specific imagery enhanced immune function. In fact, the control group did better on physiological measures of immune system health than the experimental group. Undaunted but curious, the researchers tried again, this time adding another experimental group which was asked to use less specific imagery relating to the immune system. Again, the control group did better than the experimental groups. In fact, the groups that practiced the complex imagery had decreased levels of the immune function being measured compared to levels taken prior to the imagery work, while the relaxation controls showed higher immune system functions after relaxing. The conclusion drawn from this and similar research is that visualization exercises and relaxation exercises are not the same thing. Specific, complex visualization is work, and uses energy. Relaxation exercises serve to replenish energy.
The Basic Rest Activity CycleRossi (1993) also points out that the body has a regular cycle, the "ultradian cycle" of peak functioning and lowered functioning that occurs at approximately 2-hour intervals throughout the day. We work best when we allow ourselves to follow these natural peaks and valleys, working hard when we are "on" and structuring our schedules to allow time to fully relax during the "valley" times, which last about 20 minutes. The best schedule for performing your relaxation exercises is to do them once upon awakening to set the tone for the day, once at bedtime to ensure a restful, restorative sleep, and several times throughout the day, during those "valley" times, to enhance your performance of daily activities, whatever they may be.
Learning RelaxationFor some people, relaxation comes easily. For others, use of soothing music or even a voice tape made by a professional is helpful. Others prefer a personalized tape with images they have helped to create to assist them in achieving deep relaxation. Whichever you choose, remember that relaxation is not just in the muscles; it also relates to clearing the mind of troubling thoughts. The visualization exercises which many of our patients use as part of their treatment program are integral to their healing. But these exercises, however good you feel after performing them, do not replace regular time set aside exclusively to relax. Dr. Low at the Center for Consious Living can assist you in learning to use relaxation to improve your health and wellbeing. Call today.
References:Glaser, R., Rice, J., Speicher, C.E., Stout, J.C., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K. (1986). Stress depresses intferon production by leucocytes concomitant with a decrease in natural killer cell activity. Behavioral Neuroscience, 100 (5), 675-678.
Hall, H.R., Minnes, L., Tosi, M., & Olness, K. (1992). Voluntary modulation of neutrophil adhesiveness using a cyberphysiologic strategy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 63, 287-297.
Rossi, E.L. (1993). The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.