Q: When life seems to be closing in on you physically, mentally, financially, etc. what do you do to relax? It's like I go into crisis-mode every day, and I tell myself not to do it and to stop being so tense. But it is easier said than done. What can I do today to relax and calm down?
A: Stress sets off physiological and chemical changes in your body that can have toxic effects and can disturb immunity. These changes are collectively called the stress response. Fortunately there is an antidote to the stress response. It is natural, everyone is capable of it, and it is free. It is called the relaxation response.
The relaxation response is a profoundly healing state. In fact it may be the most fundamental healing state of which you are capable... for what happens in this state is that all of your inborn tendencies toward balance and harmony are allowed to express themselves.
The benefits of this special state are really the result of helping your body and mind rest deeply.
When you are free of stress and tension, your body's inherent tendencies toward balance are given the opportunity to assert themselves. Every cell has within its nucleus a genetic code or blueprint, showing what perfect harmony, balance, and health look like for you. That blueprint contains detailed instructions for each individual cell, as to its own role in restoring that state of balance.
I wish to emphasize here the importance of this genetic code. Imagine for a moment that you had the responsibility to direct all your body's functions. You must make a conscious effort to pump your blood, to digest your breakfast, to filter your blood through your liver and kidneys, to regulate your temperature, to grow white cells in your marrow, to direct each breath, etc... You would very quickly be overwhelmed with this responsibility. Fortunately your body has the programming to do all this for you. You need not even be awake, and these vital functions still go on.
Likewise, all your body's healing responses go on without your conscious participation.
When you have a cut or bruise, the cells in that area know exactly what to do to restore that area to health, to knit the tissue back together, to remove the debris, to clear away the bacteria, and to restore the area to its original condition - in accordance with the genetic code for that area. What an overwhelming responsibility it would be if you had to understand consciously how to do this! None of you would be alive today.
The best you can do is support these inherent healing processes. And one of the most supportive things you can do is to remove as much interference as possible. To the degree that stress interferes with these healing processes, you will benefit by clearing the way for the relaxation response to work its magic…..
Techniques to Create the Relaxation Response
Since the full relaxation of your body originates with the relaxation of your mind, you are basically working with your mind. The mind has been described as a stampeding herd of wild horses, a cage full of chattering monkeys, a freeway at rush hour, and many other metaphors, all of which characterize its seemingly uncontrollable nature. If left unattended, it will continue its random, chaotic activity. In fact, in this process, you will get to know your mind more deeply than ever before, for you will be in a new relationship with it.
Your mind can be slowed down and harnessed, or brought under control, so to speak. The means to accomplish this may be called “mindfulness.” This means your mind is full of what is happening right now, and you use a particular focus to occupy your mind's attention….
Using the Breath [as a Focus for Relaxation]
You may choose to use the breath as the focus for your relaxation process. Each breath is long, slow, and deep, into the belly. Being mindful of the breath, you become a student of it, and concentrate all your attention on a particular aspect of the breath.
There are several ways the breath can be used.
Watching the breath - One method of watching is to focus on the expansion and relaxation of your belly. Notice how as you breathe in the belly expands outward as the diaphragm moves down, making more room for the lungs. As you exhale, notice how the belly is drawn back in, as if the belly button is reaching to touch the front of your spine.
Follow the rhythm of this in and out movement, like a circle with no beginning point, just a continuous circular motion. This movement of the belly is like that of a person rowing a boat across a lake, with the arms moving in a circular motion, each stroke flowing into the next, with no clear ending or beginning for each stroke.
Another method of watching is to focus on a point just inside your nostrils. Imagine that there are millions of tiny, sensitive nerve endings that can feel the air moving in across this area of tissue. You might think of the air as an ocean of billions of molecules, like marbles, all rolling over each other and over these nerve endings as they cascade down you windpipe into your lungs.
Then the flow reverses, and this sea of marbles pours back out, again over those same nerve endings, as it leaves your body. And just as a tidal pool next to the ocean is constantly filled and emptied by the ebb and flow of the waves, so too the ocean of air constantly pours in and back out, through your nostrils. Maintain your focus on this area just inside the entrance.
Counting breaths - This means counting each in-breath and each out-breath, in pairs. For example: (in-breath) one, (out-breath) one, (in-breath) two, (out-breath) two, repeating this process up to ten. When you reach ten you begin again at one.
Whenever you realize you have been distracted by thought and have lost count (which will happen!), rather than trying to remember where you were, you begin again at one.
Beginning-middle-end - Another approach with the breath is to focus on the beginning, middle, and end of each breath. This means that you conceive of the breath as having three segments, and you notice each of these segments, with each in-breath and with each out-breath.
In other words, you notice the beginning, middle, and end of the in-breath, followed by the beginning, middle, and end of the out-breath. This too becomes a circular process, and you can fall into a comfortable rhythm of flowing in a circular motion.
It is important in all the breathing techniques to use your senses, rather than just doing it as an intellectual exercise.
Really focus your senses on the experience of each breath as intimately as you can. Feel the texture of the air, feel the rising and falling of your belly, the expansion of your rib cage as the ribs open like fingers on a hand with each breath... Attune to your senses as much as possible to experience the breathing.
It is this use of the senses that will help you stay focused on the process and, in turn, calm the mind. Fritz Perls, MD, the father of gestalt therapy, once used a phrase which captures this process: "Lose your mind, and come to your senses."
* This information is excerpted with kind permission from Chapter 8 of Dr. Collinge's book Recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Guide to Self-Empowerment, which is offered free in its entirety on his website (http://www.collinge.org http://www.collinge.org/Cfs.htm - and may be purchased as a 4-disc Audio CD Program at
http://www.collinge.org/CFSaudios.htm © William Collinge, PhD, MPH.
Dr. Collinge's FM Wellness Project Now Recruiting. Currently, Dr. Collinge is directing the NIH-funded online “FM Wellness Project,” a unique free online project designed to identify patterns in details of the individual’s habits/activities that link to symptom fluctuation. The program welcomes both fibromyalgia and ME/CFS patients and is available free only until July 1, 2010. For information and to submit an application, go to www.fmwellness.org