Originally published on counseling.org
We all know what the stress response feels like – sweaty palms, fast heartbeat and increased tension throughout the body. You may however, be unaware of the Relaxation Response. Taking a single deep breath sends a signal to the sympathetic nervous system to turn off the stress reaction. Think of the sympathetic nervous system as the gas pedal or the stress stimulator for the stress reaction.
Focusing on deep breaths for a few moments can trigger the Relaxation Response. The Relaxation Response was discovered in 1974 by one of my mentors, Herbert Benson, M.D., founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Dr. Benson found that when individuals focused on their breathing and used a mental focus such as a mantra (intentional repetitive thought), neuro-chemical changes in the brain occurred; the opposite state of the stress reaction. The parasympathetic nervous system became “turned on” releasing dopamine, serotonin and endorphins – the body’s feel good chemicals. Think of the parasympathetic nervous system as the brake pedal for the stress reaction.
Unlike the stress reaction which is automatic, the Relaxation Response can be turned on at will through the practice of simple techniques including yoga and basic breathing techniques. In yoga, we refer to the basic breath, which is a deep full breath into the belly, also known as diaphragmatic breathing and belly breathing.
Learning to use deep breathing techniques will not only interrupt your stress reaction as it happens, it will also prevent stress from building. I want you to think of your breath as the express train to relaxation. Here are some express train tickets to relaxation:
Find a comfortable position, preferably with your feet firmly resting on the ground. Place your hand on your lower belly, above the diaphragm, below the belly button. Breathe in through your nose as deeply as you comfortably can and release it with a sigh. This is a great way of releasing emotional and physical tension.
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
This breathing technique can be expanded to add a mental focus or mantra. One of my favorites is to silently repeat “I am” on my in-breath and “at peace” on the out-breath. Counting down from 10-1 is another way. You may prefer to use numbers as your mental focus than words – having options is helpful.
In order for breathing techniques to work, you need to remember to use them. Set reminders to take a moment to pause to breathe between sessions which can be created on cell phones, computers or by posting sticky notes in unexpected places. Breathing mindfully is a powerful therapeutic tool – we are breathing anyway, adding an intention to calm and soothe is simple.