‘‘Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax.’’ – Mark Black.
In the first part of this blog, we observed how stress and the stress system can create strong physiological changes within the body. Although this reaction is an intrinsic part of our human make-up, if experienced on a frequent basis or without break, our health can be impacted. In this article, we will take a look into what might be considered to be the antidote for stress: Relaxation.
What is relaxation?
The dictionary definition of relaxation is simply put, as ‘the state of being free from tension and anxiety’. Although this sounds straightforward, our tolerance to stress and anxiety can be somewhat fluctuating depending on what we may be experiencing at any one time. Often, it is when we are at our most stressed and have the fullest minds, that we need relaxation the most, which coincidently is the time it might get neglected! With this in mind, we are going to take a look into the practice of relaxation itself, how it affects the body, and the difference practising it regularly could make to your health and wellbeing.
Relaxation as a practice within itself is still fairly new to western society, with its framework introduced over the course of the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. This would go on to influence a variety of fields incorporating body and mind relaxation techniques for therapeutic purposes. Until these more recent developments, practices such as mindfulness and meditation were not taught in schools (as they sometimes are now), so for many, these are still relatively new concepts. It may perhaps be due to this, that we have not always been taught to prioritise relaxation, even though it could be considered to be the ground block which enables us to manage everything else. Imagine your mental health as being the foundations of a newly built house: If they are stable and well grounded, it is much more likely that the weight on top is able to be held.
So what actually happens when we relax?
Relaxation works on a system referred to as the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’, and just as our stress system triggers changes in our body, so does relaxation.
Another similarity which can be drawn, is the role our hypothalamus plays. The hypothalamus, as we mentioned in part 1, is a structure deep within the brain which acts a little bit like a smart control centre, influencing the nervous system and managing hormones, whilst maintaining your bodies internal balance.
Stress vs Relaxation
In very simplified terms, when our brain registers any situation, the hypothalamus helps our body to respond accordingly by the release of hormones from organs and glands.
- If danger is registered: fight or flight signal is sent > Stress System kicks in (AKA our sympathetic nervous system).
- If no danger is registered: Stress system is NOT activated > parasympathetic nervous system is dominant.
Therefore, when we purposely create a situation which encourages our bodies relax, it opens the gateway to encourage a physical change within the body. The parasympathetic system provides a decrease in the stress system tone itself, allowing the arteries to widen and allowing an increase of blood flow through them. An increase of oxygen becomes available to our bodies tissues, specifically in the peripheries. Our breathing rate slows, our blood pressures lower, and muscle tension is reduced. Blood flows freely to our digestive organs, as the bodies self-healing and balancing functions begin to take place.
If practiced regularly, research has noted positive findings such as greater attention and concentration, reduced fatigue, improved memory function, and better sleep quality. Over a period of time, it is clear to see the impact this is likely to have to our overall general health.
Where to start with relaxation?
A very thought provoking analogy which originates from the teachings of Buddhism but is frequently used in mental health literature is ‘The Monkey Mind.’ This analogy likens our mind to a very restless and unsettled monkey that jumps from branch to branch, and tree to tree, just as our mind (or ‘Monkey Mind!’) sometimes jumps restlessly between thoughts. The ‘monkey mind’ struggles to exist in the present moment, but rather is constantly distracted by thoughts of the past or future, and very rarely in the present. The idea of focusing on the moment as we experience it is the practice of mindfulness and this practice helps us to become more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, we’re able to manage them.
Headspace: The Monkey Mind
It is for this reason that relaxation is not just an action but a skill, and as we know, the more we practise skills the better they become. Children are no different to adults in this respect; we are all able to learn it, and there is something for everyone.
There are many different ways to relax and to boost our mental health, and sometimes it may be about finding what is right for you. How empowering it is though – To know that there are things we can do to create such positivity within the body!
Please have a look at the links below for some useful resources or organisations who may be able to support, and check out some of the tips posted throughout January by The Child Brain Injury Trust!