In my last column I talked about the Five R’s of Coping (Rethink, Relax, Release, Reduce, and Reorganize) System to help you manage your stress.
I explained how the R’s work independently or together to target the three components of stress: (1) potential stressors, (2) what your mind tells you about the potential stressors, and (3) the stress response that kicks in if your mind feels threatened by and unable to cope with the potential stressors.
In this column I am going to talk about Relax, and how it works by targeting the stress response.
What Does it Mean to Really Relax?
You’re probably saying to yourself, “I know how to relax. I go fishing.” Or, “Relax; my way to relax is spelled W I N E.”
While going fishing or golfing and drinking wine, beer, or one of my favorites, margaritas are fun and get your mind off of things for a while, they fall short of getting your body and mind in a truly relaxed state.
Let me explain by comparing what is going on in your body and mind when you are stressed and relaxed. Here is a quick look at the stressed and relaxed state of being:
The Stressed State
- Increased cardiac output
- Increased body metabolism
- Increased muscular tension
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood-clotting time
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased blood flow to the major muscle groups involved in fight-or-flight
- Increased breathing rate
- Increased oxygen consumption
The Relaxed State
- Decreased cardiac output
- Decreased body metabolism
- Decreased muscular tension
- Decreased heart rate
- Decreased blood-clotting time
- Decreased blood pressure
- Normalized blood flow to the major muscle groups involved in fight-or-flight
- Decreased breathing rate
- Decreased oxygen consumption
The Stressed State
Think of the stress response as a heightened state of arousal of your mind and body. This heightened arousal mobilizes the energy and tension you need to either “fight” or “flee” from threats to your wellbeing (aka stressors).
Three things characterize the heightened state of arousal that is related to the stress response (1) increased nervous system arousal, (2) increased muscle tension, and (3) increased negative thinking and unhelpful self-talk.
Increased Nervous System Arousal
Your brain and nervous system work together like a large telephone network. The network has thousands of messages entering and leaving from various telephone lines and cell towers located throughout the region it serves.
Your brain and nervous system process messages the same way. The nerves that make up you central (brain and spinal cord) and peripheral (the rest of your nerves) nervous systems have millions of connections throughout your body and are constantly sending and receiving messages in the form of electrical impulses.
Every waking moment messages are sent and received from your senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell), your internal organs, your muscles, your skin, from every part of your brain. These messages have to be received, decoded, and acted upon. Normally, your brain has no problem doing this and you go about your daily life unaware of these transactions between your body, mind, and environment.
All of this changes however during a crisis.
The best example I can think of is what happens in an emergency when everyone is on their phones at the same time trying to make a call. There are so many additional people making calls and going online, that it floods the system, slows things to a crawl, and causes your message to fail, get delayed, or get garbled.
The same thing happens when your brain works overtime sending and receiving millions of stress-related nerve transmissions during a stressful period. During this time, you mind doesn’t process information as accurately or quickly as it normally does. It loses its ability to focus, concentrate, and think clearly. You become what I call, “mesmerized into inactivity,” because you just don’t know what to do.
Increased Muscle Tension
Your skeletal muscles work by contracting and relaxing as they go about their daily business of helping you walk, run, push, lift, and pull things. Without even realizing it or thinking about it, your internal smooth and cardiac muscles go about their work of pumping blood, breathing, digesting food and eliminating waste non-stop, 24/7 for your entire lifetime.
The increased muscle tension associated with the stress response results in your skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscles being readied for action. Think of this state of readiness as an “isometric exercise.” The main difference is that in gym class when you did isometric exercises the sustained contraction you got from pulling or pushing against an immovable object was followed by a relaxation of the muscles and a release of the tension you built up.
During the stress response this state of chronic tension is called bracing and is the result of incomplete contraction and relaxation of your skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscles. When your skeletal muscles are chronically tense your body feels tight and on edge making it hard to relax and feel comfortable. In addition it can cause chronic pain, cramping and muscle spasms. Smooth muscle bracing is related to a host of digestive system disorders and cardiac muscle bracing can result in chest pains that mimic angina or other cardiac symptoms.
When I was in my early thirties I couldn’t figure out why I had this crushing chest pain. I was in great shape, ran half-marathons, didn’t smoke, wasn’t overweight etc. I was shocked to find out that my pain was “stress related “ and my heart was doing just great. My doctor’s advice; do something about your stress.
Increased Negative Thinking and Unhelpful Self-Talk
Usually, your mind focuses on helpful or benign thoughts or feelings as it goes about its business of processing information. Most people are not even aware of their thoughts and feelings at any given moment when things are going right.
All of this changes however when you get stressed. Your mind shifts into self-preservation mode and you go on high alert. As a defense and way to protect you from harm your mind analyzes everything and projects an infinite stream of “what if” and “why” questions and scenarios that are not very helpful in managing the stressful situation and often make it worse.
Increased negative thinking and unhelpful self-talk causes your brain to work overtime processing stressful information. It floods your mind with an endless procession of negative and pessimistic thoughts, concerns, and worries.
The Relaxed State
While golfing, fishing, and drinking alcoholic beverages are fun and can take your mind off of your problems and your stress, they do not always put your body into a relaxed state capable of cancelling out the stress response.
The relaxed state is the exact opposite of the stressed state. The two states are diametrically opposed and cannot co-exist. You cannot be stressed and relaxed at the same time. Instead of increased nervous and muscular system activity and negative thinking, your body and mind slow down. All of your major brain and body functions operate at a slower, more efficient level.
- Your brain and central nervous system send and receive fewer messages. The messages that are sent are communicated more efficiently.
- In addition, your skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscles loosen up, release their tension, and stop bracing.
- Your thoughts flow freely and easily and you are more optimistic and feel more in control of your life.
- In my next column I will share with you a very simple technique that can help you relax and break the stress response.
Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more. www.drrichblonna.com.