The Stress & Relaxation Response 

The Stress Response


The stress response is a natural response to perceived danger or threat and it is also a natural response to daily events experienced by people in the modern world.


The best way to explain how it works is to look at an example of a potential emergency:
Imagine you are asleep in bed.
You are awoken by a loud crash downstairs and you hear unfamiliar voices getting nearer and nearer.


Your body gets ready to tackle the situation by:

  • Increasing the rate of breathing – to supply increased oxygen to the body
  • Increasing the heart rate – to supply more oxygen faster to the muscles and vital organs.
  • Redirecting blood flow to supply the brain and major muscle groups and away from the digestive system and hands and feet  
  • Muscle tension – to run away, attack someone or something, lift something heavy etc


All these changes together are called the stress response. Sometimes the stress response is called the ‘fight and flight’ response and in an emergency or any dangerous situation can be vital to survival.


While it is potentially life saving in an emergency, the stress response can become a problem if it is ongoing in response to the ordinary, non-emergency frustrations of daily living. The result can be a build up of tension that you become aware of only once the tension itself becomes a problem, making your pain worse. 


An example of a daily situation that can elicit the stress response could be:

  • Your alarm does not go off, so you wake late and will be late for an appointment 
  • On the way out of the house you pick up the post and find you are overdrawn and won’t to be able to pay a big bill being presented that day
  • There is an accident on the way to your appointment, making you even later
  • You get to the appointment to find that because you are so late the appointment has already been cancelled and you cannot get another one soon


Imagine how your stress levels might have increased from the time you overslept until you reached the place of your appointment!! Or if this scenario does not fit your life experience, then imagine your own particular stress nightmare, e.g. you overdid the housework yesterday so your pain has flared up, you have a sick child, the washing machine has broken down, your partner is going to be home later than planned.


You need to find a way to reduce the stress response to these ongoing daily irritations. Otherwise the level of tension will continue to grow within you until you feel fit to burst and your pain will also increase. 


The stress response is an automatic response, but by learning to recognise the build up of tension as it occurs, you can control the stress response and prevent the unhelpful physical and emotional symptoms it creates. 


You can do this by learning about and engaging the relaxation response.


The Relaxation Response


The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response and just as stress can become a habit, so you can learn to adopt relaxation as a habit.


Relaxation is useful in many ways:

  • With practice you can learn to recognise the unpleasant physical and emotional sensations that accompany the stress response. Then you can bring them under control.
  • It lowers stress levels and breaks the cycle of stress and pain.
  • It is easier to perform activities, exercise, keep fit and well if you are relaxed


How to achieve the relaxation response:

  • Practise breathing exercises to deepen and slow the rate of breathing
  • Practise relaxation techniques 


Basic guidelines for practising breathing exercises:

  • When you are aware of increasing emotional or physical tension, focus lightly on your breath and let your breathing settle
  • Once the breathing has settled you can try to take a few slightly deeper or bigger breaths.
  • After a few deeper breaths resume your normal breathing


Practice the breathing exercises regularly, even when you are not stressed, so that you can keep your stress levels low.


Basic guidelines for practising relaxation techniques:

  • Relaxation is useful to prevent the stress response from building up.
  • Practise at least once a day
  • Set times for relaxation that you stick to; defend them from others demanding your time and energy.
  • Find a place that is warm, quiet and comfortable; take the phone off the hook; loosen any tight fitting clothing and settle down.
  • Practise relaxation on a fairly empty stomach – do not eat a heavy meal immediately beforehand.
  • It is best not to practise late at night as you will probably fall asleep and lose the learning you will gain from the practise. 


Helpful Hint:
If the breathing and relaxation techniques are practised regularly you will find it easier to use them when you are feeling especially stressed. 



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