How does relaxation change your body?

Relaxation explored.

Most people would agree it feels good to truly relax, we can feel there are positive changes as we sink into a calm state of relaxation.  I’m often talking about the benefits of relaxation with my clients in kidderminster, but what does relaxation actually mean for our bodies? 

According to the dictionary relaxation is defined as   "the state of being free from tension and anxiety". 

Relaxation in many ways counteracts the effects of stress on the body. Although the physiological and biochemical changes that happen during the acute stress response have been thoroughly studied, the contrasting changes of the relaxation response are less understood. The relaxed state in basic terms results in your heart and breathing rate slowing, your blood pressure goes down, your production of stress hormones decreases, and your muscles loosen and relax. The relaxation effect may also increase the levels of serotonin in your brain, a chemical in the body that positively affects emotions and thoughts.  Blood pressure reduction is among the changes most consistently observed during studies of the effects of relaxation on the body.  This alone can have a positive influence on many health conditions but is one reason why it is important to tell your therapist if you have clinically low blood pressure.

When relaxation occurs the nervous system is affected.  The sympathetic branch which is heightened by stress slows down and the parasympathetic branch takes over.  This part of the nervous system is concerned with restful activities: - the body and mind calm and the metabolic rate slows. When truly relaxed your body requires only  very low energy, similar to the low metabolic rate in deep sleep. In a sustained state of relaxation, oxygen requirement of our body tissues falls lower than during normal sleep. The blood lactate level falls significantly up to three times faster during therapeutic relaxation than a normal restful state. Lactate is the chemical that enters the blood through the metabolic activity of the muscles and is responsible for muscle fatigue.  It appears certain that while relaxing you are helping your body to recover from the negative effects of everyday stress.

The term, ‘Relaxation Response’ was first used by Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute.  He studied the effects of this relaxation response on the body.   In his book The Relaxation Response, Dr. Benson describes the scientific benefits of relaxation; he explains that regular practice of relaxation can be an effective way of managing a wide range of stress-related disorders.  The changes can occur from the first time someone enjoys therapeutic relaxation. Research looking at subjects brain activity has shown the there are observable reductions in cortical arousal, meaning heart rate lowers breathing slows and muscle tone relaxes.

Regularly enjoying therapeutic relaxation can be effective in improving day to day wellbeing, and result in an increased control over the body's response to stress. A recent study (2013) also discovered that the relaxation response also affects the way our genes influence body systems including the immune function, metabolism and insulin control.  This requires further research but suggests that the relaxation response may have a positive effect beyond that of counteracting the stress response.

There are many ways to elicit the relaxation response. I advise clients to try different methods that can be included in their day to day lives. Reflexology and massage are great ways to feel the full body effects of relaxation but few people can include these treatments in daily life. There are a number of methods to encourage deep relaxation such as:

  • Breathing techniques can be easily learnt and included regularly in your life.
  • Yoga poses are renowned for relaxation benefits.
  • Art therapy such as colouring in or sewing can be beneficial  as you become absorbed in the activity and allow stresses to be forgotten.
  • Meditation can be hard to begin with but is an ideal way to promote the relaxation response.

The physiological changes caused by relaxation may not have been as fully explored as the negative effects of stress but it seems clear that the benefits go beyond just counteracting stress. If you'd like to experience deep relaxation through reflexology then please do contact me 07531 121199.

Listen to a free relaxation MP3 here.

If you are concerned about your stress levels and the effects on your body then please contact you GP or health care practitioner.

Posted on October 24, 2014 and filed under stress management.