By Dr. Mercola
While 99 percent of Americans feel relaxation is important, most spend less than 5 percent of their day in pursuit of it, according to a survey commissioned by, fittingly, a major cruise line.1
After you’ve done all of the ‘must-dos” of your day, you may simply feel you don’t have time for relaxation or, like 62 percent of the parents surveyed, you might feel guilty doing it.
One-third of those polled even said they feel stressed out just by thinking about relaxation! Perhaps, more aptly, they feel stressed out because it’s just one more thing that you’re “supposed” to be doing to stay well.
But I assure you, once you get into the habit of daily relaxation, you won’t know how you did without it. And don’t feel guilty. Regular relaxation is every bit as important as proper diet, sleep, and exercise; it’s all a part of feeling your best, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Anxiety May Accelerate Aging, While Relaxing Slows It
Part of what makes relaxation so good for you is by tamping down the effects of stress and anxiety. For instance, a recent study revealed that anxiety disorders increase your risk of several aging-related conditions, which might be due to accelerated aging at the cellular level.2
This cellular aging was reversible when the anxiety disorder went into remission, which suggests sound relaxation strategies may help you avoid this accelerated aging. In fact, you might be aware that your body has a stress response that kicks into gear when you’re facing a real (or perceived) threat.
The counterpart of the stress response is the relaxation response, which is a physical state of deep rest that changes physical and emotional responses to stress.
Researchers now know that by evoking your body’s built-in relaxation response – your innate, inborn capacity to counter the harmful effects of stress, according to an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson3 -- you can actually change the expression of your genes for the better.
According to one study in PLOS One:4
“RR [relaxation response] elicitation is an effective therapeutic intervention that counteracts the adverse clinical effects of stress in disorders including hypertension, anxiety, insomnia and aging…
RR practice enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance, and reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways.”
Previous research by Dr. Benson and colleagues also found that people who practice relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation long-term have more disease-fighting genes switched “on” and active, including genes that protect against pain, infertility, high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis.5
The Many Health Benefits of Deep Relaxation
If you want to experience the health benefits of relaxation, you need to do more than lounge on your couch watching TV. You’re looking for deep relaxation, the kind where your mind stops running and your body is free of tension.
Jake Toby, a hypnotherapist at London's BodyMind Medicine Center who helps people to evoke the relaxation response, told The Independent:6
“What you're looking for is a state of deep relaxation where tension is released from the body on a physical level and your mind completely switches off," he says.
"The effect won't be achieved by lounging round in an everyday way, nor can you force yourself to relax. You can only really achieve it by learning a specific technique such as self-hypnosis, guided imagery or meditation."
Once you get into the relaxation “zone,” however, your body can benefit greatly.7 For instance, a stress-management program has been shown to alter tumor-promoting processes at the molecular level in women with breast cancer.8
Genes responsible for cancer progression (such as pro-inflammatory cytokines) were down-regulated while those associated with a healthy immune response were up-regulated.9 In addition, relaxation may help:
- Boost Immunity: Meditation is known to have a significant effect on immune cells,10 and research shows relaxation exercises may boost natural killer cells in the elderly, leading to increased resistance to tumors and viruses.
- Fertility: Research suggests women are more likely to conceive when they’re relaxed as opposed to when they’re stressed.11
- Heart Health: Relaxation via meditation (done once or twice daily for three months) significantly lowered their blood pressure and psychological distress, and also bolstered coping ability in people at increased risk of hypertension.12
- Mental Health: People who meditate note reductions in psychological distress, depression, and anxiety.13
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): When people with IBS practiced relaxation meditation twice daily, their symptoms (including bloating, belching, diarrhea, and constipation) improved significantly.14,15
Money Is a Top Source of Stress for Americans
In case you were wondering, money tops the list of stressors to Americans, beating out work, family responsibilities and health concerns.16 If you have trouble relaxing, perhaps you know this all too well.
Close to three-quarters of Americans (72 percent) said they feel stressed about money at least some of the time, and close to one-quarter (22 percent) said they experience extreme stress about money, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) latest “Stress in America” report.
What’s more, 32 percent of Americans said their lack of money prevents them from living a healthy lifestyle, while one in five have skipped (or considered skipping) needed doctor’s visits due to financial concerns.
Remember, it’s key to nip stress in the bud, because chronic stress – whatever the cause -- disrupts your neuroendocrine and immune systems and appears to trigger a degenerative process in your brain that can result in Alzheimer's disease.
In addition, when you're stressed, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol, which prepare your body to fight or flee the stressful event.
When stress becomes chronic, however, your immune system becomes less sensitive to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control.
According to award-winning neurobiologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky, the following are the most common health conditions that are caused by or worsened by stress (which, theoretically, relaxation could help counter):
Infertility and irregular cycles
Insomnia and fatigue
Digestive problems and dysbiosis
How to Evoke Your Body’s Relaxation Response
As noted in the journal PLOS One, “Millennia-old practices evoking the RR include meditation, yoga and repetitive prayer.”17 These are, of course, not the only options. The relaxation response can also be elicited through tai chi, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, guided imagery and Qi Gong, for instance. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which induces the relaxation response, but taking even 10 minutes to sit quietly and shut out the chaos around you can also trigger it.18 And as noted by Dr. Kelly Brogan:
“…summoning up a feeling of gratitudewhile breathing in a paced manner (typically six counts in and six counts out), can flip heart rate variability into the most optimal patterns associated with calm relaxation and peak mental performance. They have validated the effects on ADHD, hypertension, and anxiety including double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trials.”
If you’re feeling the effects of stress and you’re unable to fully relax, Dr. Brogan recommends doing this:
- Notice and acknowledge your discomfort.
- Relax and release it no matter how urgent it feels. Let the energy pass through you before you attempt to fix anything.
- Imagine sitting back up on a high seat, in the back of your head watching your thoughts, emotions, and behavior with a detached compassion.
- Then ground yourself. Connect to the present moment – feel the earth under your feet, smell the air, imagine roots growing into the earth from your spine.
EFT for Stress Relief and Relaxation
I also strongly recommend energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which can be very effective for reducing anxiety and stress – and inducing relaxation -- by correcting the bioelectrical short-circuiting that causes your body’s reactions. You can think of EFT as a tool for “reprogramming” your circuitry, and it works on both real and imagined stressors. EFT is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture for more than 5,000 years to treat physical and emotional ailments, but without the invasiveness of needles.
Following a 2012 review in the American Psychological Association’s journal Review of General Psychology, EFT has actually met the criteria for evidence-based treatments set by the APA for a number of conditions.19 Recent research has shown that EFT significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, including anxiety.20 EFT is particularly effective for treating stress and anxiety because it specifically targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat.
In addition to stress relief, you can use EFT for setting goals and sticking to them, which is what the video above is focused on. If you are seriously stressed about money, setting goals related to your financial future might be especially pertinent to finding deep relaxation – and easier to achieve when combined with EFT. Ideally, choose a combination of approaches, like guided imagery, meditation, yoga, and EFT, and do some form of them daily. Remember, the key to relaxation’s beneficial effects is to relax regularly and as often as you can.