Consider these scenarios:
1) You're about to make a phone call to ask someone out -- and
your roommate walks into the room. Suddenly, you feel so nervous
that your hand shakes as you dial and your voice sounds strange
as you say hello. 2 ) You're about to take a test -- the professor
is handing out the test sheet -- and you feel your heart race
and your palms sweat. 3) You're angry with a friend, but you
believe your only choices are to blow it off or completely blow
up. Your stomach gets tense and you feel slightly nauseous.
Each of these examples
of stress-producing situations create feelings of anxiety. Anxiety
includes both a cognitive component, such as worrying about being
heard while on the phone, and a physiological component, such as
the resulting increased muscular tension in your hand and in your
larynx. These symptoms indicate that your body is going through
its paces of the "fight or flight response," a physiological response
rooted in our early beginnings of human survival.
The fight or flight
response involves an exquisitely orchestrated set of biochemical
changes that ready the body to respond to any perceived threat.
The brain sets off an alarm which turns on the sympathetic nervous
system, causing your adrenal glands to secrete a flood of stress
hormones. A chain reaction ensues. Your muscles tense, your
pupils dilate, your sense of hearing and smell become acute,
your diaphragm locks, your breathing and heart rate speed up,
your blood clots more quickly, your perspiration increases,
your lower priority functions shut down, and your blood flow
is redirected away from your extremities into the larger muscles.
Our early ancestors'
survival depended on physical solutions to danger. However,
social customs today tend to prevent us from fighting or fleeing,
and our stressors are usually more chronic. When our bodies
remain in an active state we are more susceptible to the long-term
negative effects of chronic stress. As we overproduce stress
hormones we chronically shut down healthy functions such as
digestion, growth, tissue repair, and responses of the immune
and inflammatory systems. And the typical person usually goes
through the fight or flight response from 100 to 250 times per
day! It's no wonder that chronic stress contributes to our susceptibility
to a wide variety of diseases and illnesses, such as the common
cold, hypertension, migraines, osteoporosis, ulcers, heart disease,
diabetes, and even depression.
So how do you cope
with and counteract the effects of chronic stress? That depends
on the nature of your particular stressors, how you may unintentionally
increase your own stress, how you cognitively appraise stress-producing
situations, and how your body uniquely reacts to stress. Stress-reduction
techniques are as wide-ranging as improving your nutrition,
exercise and sleep habits, learning time management, improving
your communication skills, learning how to balance recreation
and productivity, learning to cognitively appraise situations
in ways that enhance problem solving, decreasing or eliminating
your reliance on alcohol or drug use, and getting social support.
You may schedule to meet with one of our counselors who can
help you to analyze your own unique situation and recommend
how you can improve your stress management.
In addition, there is
one technique that can benefit just about anyone. You can counteract
the fight or flight response by harnessing your body's natural ability
to come back to a balanced state of calm by activating your parasympathetic
nervous system. This can be done through inducing the Relaxation
Response. Herbert Benson, M.D., the director of the Mind-Body
Medical Institute at Harvard, has researched the interaction of
the mind and body for 30 years. His studies have found that the
Relaxation Response creates physiological changes such as decreased
metabolism, heart rate, and breathing rate, in addition to distinctively
slower brain waves. These changes are associated with feelings of
calm and a decrease in anxiety. Interestingly, his research has
found that people tend to experience an increased sense of spirituality
regardless of whether or not they used a repetitive religious focus,
and spirituality was also associated with fewer medical symptoms.
This has led him to draw from many religious traditions of the world
to continue his research on the healing effects of spirituality.
The instructions for
inducing the Relaxation Response are very simple. You'll
receive the full benefits if you practice for 20 minutes per day
or at least several times per week.
Find a Quiet Spot:
Choose a quiet room, outdoor setting, or wherever you can be
alone and free from distractions.
Assume a Comfortable
Position: You may sit straight in a chair or cross-legged
on the floor. It's best not to lie down because you may fall
Choose a Point
of Focus: Select a word or sound that elicits a sense of
tranquillity, such as Calm, Peace, or Relax, or if you wish,
one that is rooted in your personal religious belief system.
The purpose of this mental device is to break the chain of distracting
thoughts and direct your focus internally. Close your eyes,
relax your muscles, and breathe normally. Repeat your word or
sound silently as you exhale.
Develop a Passive
Attitude: When distracting thoughts come, just allow them
to float away while you return to your point of focus.
This is but only one
technique you can use to induce relaxation -- others include learning
more structured relaxation exercises, guided imagery, and autogenic
training. Two of our psychologists from the University Counseling
Center teach a three session Relaxation
Training class at the Rolfs Recreation Center on Fridays
from 4:00 - 5:00 every semester. If you are interested, the class
costs $10.00 and you can stop by the RecSports Center to register.
You can also check out more tips on relaxation
and stress management, as well as techniques for taking stretch
breaks (useful during those long nights of keying at your computer!).
Article written by Wendy Settle, Ph.D, Staff Psyhologist, University
of Notre Dame, University Counseling Center. Original article published
in the Observer, the University of Notre Dame's campus newspaper,
on November 3, 1998.
to the Relaxation and Stress Management
self help web page.