Recently a young woman came to see me complaining of anxiety accompanied by a tight feeling in the throat. She had been promoted the year before and from what she told me, was doing the job well and receiving praise from her superiors. Despite this, and despite the fact that she herself thought she was doing a good job, the feelings persisted. It transpired that she was working extremely long hours which meant she did not get enough sleep during the week, and worked at home at weekends.

Even if she hadn’t told me that she was anxious, it was obvious to me because her breathing was shallow and high in her chest – a classic sign of stress. Apart from the work we did together in the session to re-frame and link in to her resources, I taught her a simple breathing technique designed to re-educate her breathing with instructions on how best to practise it at home.

When I saw her two weeks later, she reported an almost complete ceasing of the anxiety, despite unexpected workplace chaos caused by the advent of coronavirus, and had found herself able to support others who were upset, without any detriment to herself. She had given herself a time when she would finish her working day and hadn’t worked at the weekend. Instead, she had spent time with her partner doing enjoyable activities and found she was sleeping better. Interestingly, even though she worked less hours, she was still able to get all her work done.

The truth is we cannot escape our biology. The human nervous system is a complex structure comprising the brain, spinal cord and a network of nerves to all parts of the body. Through our nervous system, we receive and respond to information from our environment and act upon our environment. It is the communication system of the body. It has two branches to it – one known as the sympathetic nervous system and the other known as the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch is associated with activity that causes expenditure of energy whilst the parasympathetic is concerned with conserving energy and importantly, its restoration. Ideally therefore, we need to be able to switch between the two so that we are replenishing our stores of energy to make them available for periods of activity.

“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.” Sydney J. Harris, American Journalist

The sympathetic nervous system is also associated with the fight/flight response. This is a primitive mechanism designed to protect us from danger. When we go into fight/flight mode in response to something we perceive as threatening, the mind and body are prepared to be able to stay and fight, or flee. In order to do this, the heart beats faster and blood is diverted from inessential activities such as digestion and thinking, and sent to the limbs. You don’t need to digest food or think analytically when you are preparing to run or stay and fight. Muscles tense, pupils dilate to take in more information, breathing becomes shallower and sweat is produced to cool the body. All these changes are made possible by the secretion of adrenaline. The fight/flight response is intended to save our lives.

By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes referred to as the “holiday nervous system.” The parasympathetic system slows the heart rate, dilates blood vessels, activates digestion and as we know, enables the body to conserve energy. After a fight/flight response, it is the activity of the parasympathetic branch that calms everything down again. Think of a cat that you see facing a competitor over territory one minute, and the next curled up asleep, and you see the totality of the nervous system in action.

Unfortunately, modern day living means that most people are in a state of heightened arousal much of the time. Ailments such as headaches, neck and shoulder tension, feeling stressed, poor sleep and digestive problems are all testament to this. Where there is chronic stress and stress hormone levels
remain high, the immune system is also held in abeyance. Hence, the phenomenon of succumbing to a cold or flu or some other infection after or during a period of stress.

A simple definition of relaxation is the state of being free from tension and anxiety. Benefits associated with relaxation are numerous and include:

*more energy
*better sleep
*enhanced immunity – higher natural killer cell and lymphocyte activity
*better problem-solving abilities
*greater efficiency
*better self-control
*less turbulent emotions
*less headaches
*reduced risk of heart disease and other serious illnesses.

In my practice, I see many people for a diverse range of issues who breathe in a shallow way telling me they are stressed to some degree or another. Opportunities for renewal, both physical and mental, are few - unless we consciously make time for them.

As a therapist, I usually ask people what they do to relax. I am looking for resources that might be useful in dealing with their presenting issue. Some people look at me blankly or state they don’t think they ever relax. Some people will say watching TV, going to the gym, going out with friends. Very few people say they meditate or have any form of relaxation practice.

It is known that feelings of stress can be alleviated by changing the stress - for example playing a hard game of squash after a demanding day at the office. But many activities people engage in during their free time are still demanding of our physiology or even toxic to it. Having alcohol falls into this category. Activities
that lead to real promotion of renewal that allows the
parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, are absent from most people’s lives.

Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at the Massachussetts General Hospital and author of “The Relaxation Response” was researching ways to lower blood pressure when he undertook a number of experiments with meditators. Results included a noticeable drop in the percentage of oxygen consumed whilst meditating, slower breathing, a drop in lactate circulating in the blood stream (high levels of circulating lactate have been associated with disquiet and anxiety) and slower brainwave patterns. Benson dubbed the body’s ability to regulate its own physiology, the relaxation response.

He also found that those who brought their brains to intense activity for a period of time and then suddenly shifted into a relaxed state as a matter of habit, regularly experienced insight to a greater degree than those who did not.

"During periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight." Fritjof Capra, physicist.

Benson found that there were other practices apart from meditation that invoked the relaxation response. These include yoga, autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation and hypnosis. He himself developed and teaches a simple method of relaxation that involves relaxed breathing and focus on a word, prayer or sound.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that in people who regularly elicit the relaxation response, the body is less responsive to the stress hormone noradrenaline, even during times of the day when not practising the response. This means that more noradrenaline is required to bring about an increase in heart rate and blood pressure in these people than in others. In other words, invoking the relaxation response triggers a series of physiological changes that protect against stress.

The unexpected events that have occurred in recent weeks are calling on us to access our inner strength and other resources more than ever. Perhaps one of the things we can all do during this time is learn to really relax in the restorative way that I have described, take the time to bring more balance to our nervous systems and delight in the benefits we experience as a result.

Author's Bio: 

Catherine Chadwick is a Hypnotherapist based in London, UK. She has been in practice for 20 years and is a member of the General Hypnotherapy Register. Apart from running a private practice, she has taught relaxation skills to those living with cancer and in acute psychiatric units. She is currently offering free 30 minute relaxation session online via Zoom.