What Is The Relaxation Response, And How Can It Help Ease Stress?

David Rakel, M.D., Wisconsin

Question: What is the relaxation response, and how can it help ease stress?

Answer:The relaxation response is a way of activating a part of the nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, which is that "fight-or-flight" response. When that's activated, we're ready to fight or flee. When we're more relaxed, the opposite, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated.

Now, in the Western life, we're constantly overactivating the sympathetic nervous system. It's kind of like being on the starting line of a race and you're all pumped up ready for the gun to go off, but the gun never goes off and that process continues. And that can have a negative influence on our health because our immune system actually works better when we're more relaxed.

So, a simple way to stimulate that relaxation response is just to do some slow, deep breathing. That's, by far, one of the best ways because when you do a deep, abdominal belly breath that stimulates the vagus nerve, and the vagus nerve is one of the main stimulators of this relaxation response. Our body does it naturally when we take a deep sigh. It's trying to tell us something. Now, if we can take 10 or 20 deep sighs a day with intention to help relax the body, that's a great way to stimulate the relaxation response.

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