Parasympathetic Nervous System: Relaxation Response / Rest, Repair & Digest
Sympathetic Nervous System: Stress Response / Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn
The Relaxation Response is the exact opposite of the stress response. It is our rest, repair and digest mode and it occurs when the body is relaxed or resting. It is also known as the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. Ideally, we want to live, or at least spend most of our time in the relaxed parasympathetic state. The sympathetic nervous system or the stress response should only really be activated when required. We switch between these states throughout the day, a bit like a traffic light. Green is the relaxation response, in principle, we live here. Yellow is the functional stress response for situations when alert and vigilant performance is required, such as a job interview or sporting competition. The red light is the full on stress response that should only be activated in serious life threatening or dangers circumstances.
Chronic stress comes from spending too much time in the red zone can have a negative impact on our physical and emotional health. Living in the stress response can be a consequence of an isolated crisis or contemporary lifestyle factors and can result in anxiety and depression.
Sound Mediation is one of the many ways to combat stress and stimulate the relaxation response and introduce a sense of calm into the body mind complex.
Here are some potential benefits of activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Respiration, heart rate and blood pressure are lowered.
- Increased digestion; we can better extract nutrients from the food we eat and eliminate waste more efficiently.
- The reproductive system operates at functional levels, fertility levels increase.
- Circulation is enhanced; therefore, our bodies more effectively eliminate toxins.
- Accelerate the healing process and boost immune function by reducing the hormone cortisol.
- Sleep quality is improved.
- Increase in decision making functions of the brain.
- Liberate emotional traumas stored within the body/mind complexes.
- Deconstruct negative thought patterns.
- Fosters creative potential.
- Increased concentration, focus and attention.
Herbert Benson, a Harvard researcher that coined the term Relaxation Response, along with an eight step activation method.
Eight Steps to active the Relaxation Response and how it relates to Sound Meditation.
1. Set aside 15-20 minutes. The average time for most people to achieve the maximum health benefit. Each Sound Meditation is 30-60 minutes.
2. Repetition. Pick a focus word, phrase, image, short prayer or focus on your breathing. In Sound Meditation we are using the sound of the drum as a focal point for the mind. This satisfies the brains desire to be active and occupied without engaging the active thinking mind.
3. Find a quiet place where you are unlikely to be interrupted and make yourself as comfortable as you can be. Be luxurious with your comfort so that your body can relax and you can release your attention from it.
4. Close your eyes. Create a darkened space. I suggest that you use a small towel or eye pillow over the eyes to reduce stimulation from your surroundings as light can be seen though closed eyelids.
5. Relax all your muscles, beginning with your toes and feet moving up through your entire body, shoulders and face. I will guide you through full body awareness during the first few minutes of a mediation, settling and releasing tension in the physical body.
6. Breathe slowly and naturally. This also helps to calm the body mind and activate the relaxation response.
7. Assume a passable attitude throughout the session. Don’t worry about how you are doing; you can be sure that just by following these eight steps, you are changing your physiology from a stress response to the relaxation response. Don’t stress about relaxing! Whatever happens during the session is absolutely perfect and exactly what is supposed to happen.
8. Practice this technique at least once daily for at least 30 days, which is approx. the time needed for a new habit for form. You can continue to do this same type of practice on your own. Use music or a mantra or even the guidance of your own breath.
Learning how to relax or meditate can take some time, just like learning any new skill. Some people can find relaxation and meditation very challenging. It’s not that you are bad at meditating or you are incapable of reaching a relaxed state. You may have to work at building the ‘meditation muscle’ and just like building any other muscle, you create small gains each time you use it. Each time you meditate you are rewiring your brain, creating new neural pathways and spending time in the nourishing state of the parasympathetic nervous system. Each time you put in the effort to meditate you are receiving benefits, in your body and your mind, regardless of what happens. Even if it feels like you are the world’s worst meditator, allow yourself to be absolutely terrible but still show up completely dedicated.
That in itself, is presence. Your persistence will pay off, you got this!