We read often about the importance of regular exercise, good nutrition, and restful sleep. A healthy life rests on these three pillars, it’s true. But there’s a fourth pillar, often overlooked in a busy life: relaxation.
The Neurology of Relaxation
Our nervous system consists of our brain, spinal cord, and billions of neurons (yes! billions!). It’s our exquisite, sensitive organ of perception and organization, guiding and caring for us every second of our lives.
There are many different parts of our nervous system, and systems within the system. Today, we’re interested in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS controls bodily functions that are not consciously directed, such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes.
The ANS has two different discrete systems within itself: the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ system and the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ system. Both are essential parts of what makes us functional human beings.
Neurologically speaking, we are always either ready to run from danger and fight for our lives, or we are slowing down to rest, digest, and recuperate.
Fight or Flight state
The Fight or Flight system is crucial for life-threatening situations. But many every day circumstances also put us into this state. Modern life offers us a smorgasbord of such stresses.
And when we spend time in the Fight or Flight state, the following occurs:
- Our blood pressure is higher
- Our breathing rate is higher
- Our digestive system slows
- Our blood sugar regulation is compromised
Rest and Digest state
But when life allows –and when we focus on self-care – we calm down. As we spend some time doing all the relaxing things, our ANS shifts into the Rest and Digest state. And this is the time that our body repairs itself, and focuses on renewal:
- Our digestion is stronger
- Our blood pressure lowers
- Our blood sugar regulation is better
- Anxiety levels lower
- Muscle tension goes down
- We sleep better
- We recover well from illness.
How would life be if more of these were true on a daily basis? How would we feel? How would we interact with others in our lives? I don’t know about you, but a simple night of good sleep alone changes everything for me!
So, what do I do with all this information?
- Meditation (the most effective requires certain criteria that induce a relaxed state)
- Yoga (certain forms such as yin yoga, slow flow, or hatha are particularly effective)
- T’ai chi
- Massage (provided you are comfortable during the session)
- Meditative walking or running (no headphones, no pushing to achieve a certain pace, focused on breathing and comfort in the body)
Relaxation is a bit of a mystery for some us though. The baseline is go-go-go and moments of peace are elusive. So, how do you know if you are following the brief, and actually relaxing??
How do I implement this in my life?
- Focus on relaxation in daily life, because it will transform your whole life. In such happy-making ways :-)
- Start now. Pick from meditation, t’ai chi, yoga, meditative walking/running and incorporate it daily. Start with one of them, make it a regular habit, and then move on if you want to explore.
- And get at least monthly massage, weekly if you can. Massage will bring the benefits of relaxation, and a whole host of other goodies.
Having said that, maybe you don’t even find most massages relaxing. You get massage because you want to relieve pain or muscle tension, so you can get back to certain activities. Is this you? Do you find massage helpful for preventing neck aches, but never let go on the table?
Learn how to actually relax on the massage table, even if you never managed before. It’s really worth spending the time and attention to help yourself relax while you get a massage.