Relaxation Response for Reversing Stress

Meditation can be grasped even by beginners.
Meditation can be difficult for beginners, but there are ways to make it simple. Compassionate Eye Foundation/Taxi/Getty Images

The counterpart to the fight-or-flight response, the relaxation response, occurs when the body is no longer in perceived danger, and the autonomic nervous system functioning returns to normal. Simply put, the relaxation response is the opposite of your body's stress response—your "off switch" to your body's tendency toward fight-or-flight.

What Is Chronic Stress?

During the relaxation response, the body moves toward a state of physiological relaxation, where blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning, and hormonal levels return to normal levels.

The fight-or-flight state is one of physiological arousal, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, slowed digestive functioning, increased blood flow to the extremities, increased release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and other responses preparing the body to protect itself from perceived danger or stress.

During acute stress, the fight-or-flight response occurs naturally. This response worked well for us in our ancient humanoid history, when the stress response was triggered as a means of survival in order to flee from fast-moving physical threats like predators. 

However, in modern times, the fight-or-flight response is triggered multiple times throughout the day due to a wide range of stressors, many of which are probably more situational than they are based on survival. As such, we may find ourselves in a prolonged state of fight-or-flight, which overtaxes the nervous system and is potentially detrimental to our well-being.

Chronic stress can lead to:

  • Frequent colds
  • High blood pressure
  • Stomach ulcers

During chronic stress, the body is in a constant state of physiological arousal over perceived threats that are numerous and not life-threatening, and the body's relaxation response doesn't always have time to activate before the next stressor occurs. This can lead to decreased immunity and increases in negative emotional consequences like anxiety and burnout.

Inducing the Relaxation Response

In times of stress, the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) can be induced through breathing exercises and other mindfulness techniques that relax your body and/or your mind. (If you can relax both simultaneously, that's even better.) 

The following are some of the most effective and convenient strategies for inducing the relaxation response in your body if you're unable to experience it automatically. Practice these, and you'll find it easier to relax during times of stress and minimize the amount of time your body spends in its stress response.

Meditation

Meditation is a powerhouse of a stress reliever because it works well for calming the body and mind, and helps you to build resilience over time. Some people find it difficult to get the hang of meditation at first, but trying different meditation techniques and maintaining realistic expectations can prove helpful.

Breathing Exercises

Stress relief breathing can be highly effective in calming the body as well, as it helps stimulate the vagus nerve which is essential for PNS regulation. Breathing exercises are highly recommended because they can work to calm the body at any time and place, even in the middle of stressful situations that are ongoing.

There are different types of breathing exercises to practice, so try a few. Diaphragmatic breathing is one approach that can be particularly beneficial. This type of deep breathing is sometimes referred to as belly breathing and is done by contracting the diaphragm when taking in each breath. 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

These exercises involve tensing and relaxing different groups of muscles in your body until it becomes more natural to find and remain in a state of physical relaxation. This technique takes a little time and practice, but eventually, you should find yourself able to fully relax your body in a few minutes, if not a matter of seconds.

Yoga

You may not be surprised to hear that yoga is a wonderful practice to promote relaxation and well-being. This modality utilizes the breath and movement to relax and stabilize the mind and invite more ease into the body. 

If you're new to yoga it's recommended you begin your practice under the tutelage of a certified instructor, but there are also simple, gentle poses that can be practiced at home, and even some you can do at your desk.

A Word From Verywell

We strongly encourage you to make some of these techniques a regular part of your life. There are also other techniques such as guided imagery and visualization that can be used to reduce stress and increase relaxation.

When you regularly practice these techniques, your body may become more adept at reversing its own stress response when necessary, so you don't remain in a state of stress for an unhealthy length of time. These techniques may feel awkward or as if they are not working at the beginning. Like any behavioral change, or anything new for that matter, it takes time and practice to begin seeing results, so be patient.

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