Reducing Stress

All photographs by Amy Gray 

For many of us, relaxation means zoning out in front of the TV or on the computer at the end of a stressful day. However, this does little to reduce the damaging effects of stress. To effectively combat stress, we need to activate the body's natural relaxation response.

Text adapted from: and

The relaxation response:

Bringing your nervous system back into balance

The stress response
First described by Dr. Walter B. Cannon at Harvard Medical School in the 1920s, the fight-or-flight response evolved as a survival mechanism. When we encounter a life-threatening situation, a surge of stress hormones prepares us to fight or to flee. As a result, our hearts pound, our muscles tense, and we are suddenly on high alert.

Unfortunately, people tend to activate the fight-or-flight response multiple times during a typical day, usually because of situations that are annoying and stressful, but not life threatening. These include traffic jams, disagreements with loved ones or even long lines in the grocery store. But all those surging stress hormones can take a toll on the body.

Over time, such low-grade chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease and sleep problems. See the Mayo Clinic web site for further information on stress management and the health risks of chronic stress.

No one can (or would want to) avoid all stress but you can counteract chronic stress by learning how to produce the relaxation response: a state of deep, restorative rest that is the opposite of the stress response. Engaging the relaxation response on a regular basis stops the negative effects of stress and brings your body and mind back into a state of equilibrium. The relaxation response may help people to counteract the toxic effects of chronic stress by slowing breathing rate, relaxing muscles, and reducing blood pressure.

In addition to its calming physical effects, the relaxation response also increases resiliency, energy and focus, combats illness, relieves aches and pains, heightens concentration, problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity. 

A variety of different relaxation techniques can help you bring your nervous system back into balance by producing the relaxation response. The relaxation response is not achieved by lying on the couch or by sleeping, but arises when engaging in a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed, calm, and focused. Examples of activities that can help you produce the relaxation response include 
various types of meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, or rhythmic exercise such as running, walking, cycling, etc. Fitting these activities into your life can help reduce everyday stress and boost your resilience, energy and mood.

Learning the basics of relaxation techniques isn’t difficult, but it does take practice. Most stress experts recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. If you’d like to get even more stress relief, aim for 30 minutes to an hour. If that sounds like a daunting commitment, remember that many of these techniques can be incorporated into your existing daily schedule—practiced at your desk over lunch or on the bus during your morning commute.

Finding the relaxation technique that’s best for you
There is no single relaxation technique that is best for everyone. When choosing a relaxation technique, consider your specific needs, preferences, level of fitness, and the way you tend to react to stress. The right relaxation technique is the one that resonates with you, fits your lifestyle, and is able to focus your mind and interrupt your everyday thoughts in order to bring about the relaxation response. In many cases, you may find that alternating or combining different techniques will keep you motivated and provide you with the best results.

Consider your body's typical stress response:

  • The “fight” response. If you tend to become angry, agitated, or keyed up under stress, you may respond best to stress relief activities that quiet you down, such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, or guided imagery.

  • The “flight” response. If you tend to become depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out under stress, you may respond best to stress relief activities that are stimulating and energize your nervous system, such as rhythmic exercise, massage, mindfulness, or yoga.

  • The immobilization response. If you’ve experienced some type of trauma and tend to “freeze” or become “stuck” under stress, your challenge is to first rouse your nervous system so that you can employ the applicable stress relief techniques. To do this, choose physical activity that engages both your arms and legs, such as running, dancing, or tai chi, and perform it mindfully, focusing on the sensations in your limbs as you move.