Relaxation vs Stress
1) Stress and relaxation are at opposite ends of a scale, we are in flux between the two, and ideally our busy times of tension are balanced by relaxation, when the body can replenish reserves.
When we are stressed the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) is increased, stress hormones are released, when we are relaxed the activity of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) is increased.
When tense, the heart rate increases, bronchioles dilate and blood pressure rises, these actions decrease when we relax.
When stressed dilation of pupils occurs, constricting when we relax.
In times of stress, metabolites are broken down at an accelerated rate for quick energy, Glycogen stored in the liver is turned to glucose, blood glucose levels rise. In times of relaxation, these stores are replenished, blood sugar levels stabilize.
When stressed our muscles contract, blood is shunted from the abdomen to large skeletal muscles, peristalsis is decreased, we may lose appetite, when relaxed gastro-intestinal secretion is increased, peristalsis is stimulated, normal digestive action resumes.
Our mental state is obviously greatly affected by stress. When I am stressed I feel alert, can be short tempered, irritable, and forgetful, can change mood quickly and have trouble sleeping. When I am relaxed I tend to be easier going, less disturbed by my surroundings, kinder, more compassionate and happier.
In terms of the yogic subtle body- stress keeps me mainly in Annamaya or Manomaya kosha, senses can be heightened and the functions of the ‘lower mind’ feel increased- I can think quickly but not deeply. Stress is a rajasic state, which eventually becomes tamasic when I am exhausted. Relaxation can bring more balance and sattva, bringing me into the kind of state, where access to the more subtle koshas is possible. When I am stressed I more concerned with my external surrounds, than my subtle body- I am sure that stress has an effect on my charkas, but at the time I do not have the subtle awareness to notice the changes.
2) Chronic tension can deplete the body, the nervous system takes very quick action, which is not usually sustained, but the endocrine system can continue to release hormones, that maintain the stress response for quite a long time (depending on the individual and situation).
When the body is stressed the thyroid gland increases metabolic activity, when the stress is prolonged, the function of this gland can be impaired, eventually it may be unable to bring the body back into balance ‘the initial stress response in the autonomic nervous system pushes the gas pedal and if it is pushed long enough, the thyroid becomes a kind of cruise control button set at high speed.’ (J Lepage,Integrative Yoga Therapy Manual,8.2)
In times of stress the adrenal glands produce adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol has many functions which can be helpful in the short term, but after prolonged periods of stress, can have a negative effect on our health. Cortisol generates quick energy by breaking down proteins in the liver. It can also break down white blood cells therefore impairing immune system function.
The pancreas controls the blood sugar levels by secreting glucagons and insulin. Stress keeps the blood sugar levels high- overworking the pancreas, if it cannot produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar, diabetes can result.
When we balance the stress with relaxation the body can restore homeostasis, bringing the endocrine system back into balance.
Stress can also cause problems in the muscular-skeletal system. The sympathetic nervous system tones muscles (to prepare to fight or flight) this leads to increased muscle tension and retention of metabolic wastes (as circulation and lymphatic function is impaired). This can lead to pain and chronic inflammation and can cause trigger points to develop which result in imbalance or restriction of movement in joints and weakening or shortening of muscles, leading to compensatory patterns developing. These unproductive movement patterns waste energy and can lead to general fatigue, disrupted sleep and Fibromyalgia type problems can develop.
Relaxation can help release tension held in muscles, before the serious problems begin, and can help to reverse this process; gentle relaxing exercise (such as yoga) can also help circulation and lymphatic drainage of the area.
The digestive system is also effected by stress- we may not be digesting food thoroughly enough to metabolize all the nutrients. When I am stressed I am not as hungry and tend to choose less healthy and nutritious foods- I crave sweet and starchy foods rather than vegetables, and do not put as much time and energy into cooking. When I am relaxed I enjoy cooking creative and nutritious meals and savor eating them.
3) My idea of a good relaxation session involves a quiet, comfortable, dimly lit room, perhaps with the scene set by soothing music, incense or candles. It is important that I am not too hot or cold; maybe with a blanket- I find that the gentle pressure of an eye bag soothes the eye area and blocks out light. The tone of the teacher’s voice is important, if they sound calm and relaxed I quickly slip into that state. I tend not to listen to all the instructions and prefer periods of silence or quiet music. If the relaxation moves too quickly, involves too many different instructions or visualizations I get a bit confused and feel less relaxed.
4) Some of the most powerful benefits of relaxation are difficult to quantify, according to Lasater "When we learn to do nothing 20 minutes a day, it's powerful, not only physiologically—improved immune function and reduced blood pressure—but because we imbue ourselves with an understanding that we are more than our bodies, more than what we do. …. And that's the ultimate injury prevention: to love yourself and to know your connection to the whole."(Ouch,Yoga Journal Website)
The use of guided imagery and relaxation to help to reduce stress and anxiety before and after surgery has also been documented by the Cleveland clinic. They refer to
’Over 200 research studies in the past 30 years’ (http://www.clevelandclinic.org) although do not give specifics of those studies. They assert that guided imagery can allow patients to
• dramatically decrease pain and the need for pain medication
• Decrease side effects and complications of medical procedures
• Reduce recovery time and shorten hospital stays
• Enhance sleep
• Strengthen the immune system and enhance the ability to heal
• Increase self-confidence and self-control
5) I have only recently begun to practice relaxation at home, the recording stops me getting up and doing something else (as I would if I was just in savasana). I find that I sleep better and think more clearly at the end of a stressful day, if I listen to the relaxation recording. If I do a relaxation before an asana class I am less distracted in class, and am able to listen to my body better- I enjoy my practice more, and am less competitive with myself. The difference is very clear when I do a relaxation before the Ashtanga Vinyasa primary series, although the postures are the same and I always find them challenging, when I do a relaxation before class, I don’t push myself as much physically (or get annoyed with myself as much when something is difficult) and I finish the class feeling rejuvenated with more energy, rather than tired.
Notes taken in class and from CD.
Supplied Reading Material;
J Lepage,Integrative Yoga Therapy Manual,
BKS Iyengar Yoga,Understanding Stress,
Swami Sivananda Radha, Light Mantra and Healing,
Site accessed 9/9/04
site accessed 9/9/04
A.Weintraub,Better than Prozac?
site accessed 9/9/04
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