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Influence your stress and relaxation responses

Learn about two natural responses—stress and relaxation—you can learn to influence and help you on your way to optimum performance.

Understanding what happens when you’re stressed, and how that stress impacts your body, can help you achieve optimal performance. Among Warfighters, stress is commonly turned on too often or for too long, with negative results. However, the human body has two important natural responses that you can learn to control: the stress response, which helps keep you safe from perceived threats, and the relaxation response, which helps you calm down.  You can learn to “engage” the relaxation response in order to shut down your stress.

The stress response, also called the “fight-or-flight response,” is a process that helps keep you safe from threats and danger. When you perceive a threat, your body automatically responds to increase your chance of survival by engaging various bodily functions:

First, your body releases the stress hormones adrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) and cortisol, which act as messengers that signal the rest of your body to prepare to respond to danger.

Next, energy sources (technically: glucose, amino acids, fatty acids) rapidly mobilize from where they are stored (such as the liver) to critical muscles. This helps prime the body for action and keeps the brain alert for quick reactions.

Then your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing increase to speed the transport of nutrients and oxygen to various parts of your body such as muscles and brain (also helping protect your body as much as possible). At the same time, metabolic resources normally used for longer-term processes (such as growth, digestion, and reproduction) are diverted to the more immediate needs.

Speed and strength increase as your muscles tense to provide your body with extra speed and strength, pupils dilate to sharpen your vision, and perspiration increases to prevent over-heating from your increased metabolic rate.

Your immune function also gets a short boost at the onset of your stress response in anticipation of possible injury and infection.

While your fight-or-flight response is a valuable and useful reaction when activated for a short period of time, when it is called on too often or kept turned on for too long, stress can cause a variety of negative mental and physical effects that can lead to the development of disease and premature aging.Left on too long, it also can suppress some types of immune function—leaving you more susceptible to infection—and over-activate others (such as inflammation).

The good news is that your body has another natural mechanism— the relaxation response—which helps counter the negative effects of stress. Compared to the stress response, it has the opposite effects on your mind and body. Physically, it reduces heart, breathing, and metabolic rates, as well as blood pressure and muscle tension.  Mentally, it reduces your anxiety and increases your feelings of positive mood, calmness, and well-being. The relaxation response also can protect against psychological issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stress-exacerbated cancers such as metastatic breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer..

The relaxation response is so pervasive that it actually impacts your body at the molecular level. This means that it can affect which of your genes are “activated,” thereby impacting how your cells function. For example, the relaxation response can help turn ON certain genes that allow your body use energy more efficiently—thus reducing cellular aging—and turn OFF other genes that lead to inflammation and stress—the very opposite of what happens during your stress response.

There are various mind-body techniques you can learn and use to elicit your relaxation response and help put your mind and body at ease, including deep-breathing exercisesguided imagerymeditationprogressive muscle relaxation, yoga, taijiquan, and qigong. The effects of using such techniques to ignite your relaxation response become stronger with practice: Just two 10- to 20-minute sessions a day can help prevent or reverse the negative physical effects of chronic mental stress. It has been proven that long-term practice of mind-body methods that engage the relaxation response reduce mental distress and levels of stress hormones in your body.

In short, your environment and your own behavior can positively influence your relaxation response—all the way down to the gene level—and protect you against the effects of stress. And you can learn to enable your body’s relaxation response, an important and powerful counter- to stress, adding its many positive mental and physical effects to your Total Force Fitness arsenal.