Chronic stress has an affect on your body and brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Stress that's left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes." And high levels of stress hormones over time wreak havoc on your brain, potentially leading to depression and Alzheimer's.
Exercise, massage, breathing and meditation are on everyone's list of recommendations for dealing with stress including the Mayo Clinic, the makers of this TED Video, The Centers for Disease Control, and Health Canada. And the benefits of those practices are deeper than just the visceral comforts of relaxation. Lowering your stress response actually makes you more resilient at a cellular level, increasing the activity in genes that calm down stress reactions. Relaxing now helps you cope with stress later.
And as the Mayo Clinic reminds us, we're probably not even as relaxed as we think we are. "Inactive ways you may use to manage stress — such as watching television, surfing the Internet or playing video games — may seem relaxing, but they may increase your stress over the long term."
BRAKE is an acronym for five easy methods that you can learn and practice to truly relax. We go deeply into each one in our retreats, but you can easily practice them in your daily life, even in short doses.
Breath is the gateway to our autonomic nervous system, particularly the parasympathetic part that drives relaxation. Of all the unconscious functions of the body, breath is the only one that can also be easily consciously controlled. Relaxed breathing techniques change the messages being sent from the body to the brain, allowing for powerful effects on our thoughts, emotions and behaviour. In turn, the brain sends relaxation signals to the muscles and increases oxytocin, the "love" hormone. Just a few minutes of breath work can ease an anxious mind and improve our performance in daily life.
Breathing techniques have been practiced throughout history in traditions like Yoga, Martial Arts, Qi Gong, Buddhism and by Christian Monks. At Connect, we draw on all of them, as well as the modern science of breath.
2) RESTORATIVE YOGA
Supported postures provide much more than a comfy, effortless stretch. Allowing the body to relax without muscular contraction slows the flow of neural activity from muscle spindles to the nervous system, allowing the whole body/brain system to relax. Gentle, supported inversions reduce blood pressure to the head, slowing both heart rate and brain activity. A nice long time spent in one of these postures slows down the pace of sensory stimulation, allowing you to go into a more fullfilling resting state.
The idea of practicing yoga in resting positions was started by B.K.S.Iyengar, but has been widely adopted by many yoga methods including Yoga Tune Up®. Poses can easily be done at home with pillows and blankets.
Mindful awareness practices are a potent antidote to anxiety and emotional reactivity. Persistently reframing your mindset actually creates lasting physical changes (neuroplasticity) in the brain. It soothes parts of the brain that reduce stress hormones and builds areas that lift mood. It even reduces inflammation and improves the immune system, making you more resilient.
There are many methods of mindfulness. We've tried a lot of them and are pretty fond of Unified Mindfulness, a secular distillation of traditional contemplative practices into straightforward meditation techniques backed by neuroscience. For relaxation, we're particularly fond of the "Feel Rest" technique.
your muscles with massage therapy balls. They will release physical tension and iron out trigger points of pain. Massaging switches off overactive muscle contraction signals and builds more mitochondria, the power centre of cells that are important for healing. Massaging respiration muscles allows you to breathe better while stimulating the nervous system's relaxation response. But unlike massage therapy, self-massage helps you build body awareness and identify body blind spots that are causing pain and discomfort.
There are a variety of balls to use for self massage, including tennis balls, but our favourite are Roll Model® balls. The texture of the balls and the Roll Model methods are the safest and easiest way to get rid of tension in your muscles. We’ll always provide the balls at our retreats, but the best thing about learning how to use them is that you can take them with you wherever you go and use them throughout the day.
Finally, when practicing relaxation you want to create the perfect environment. In your daily life, you’ve probably already used environmental strategies to cope with stress, like taking a hot bath or getting out in nature. Socializing, laughter and spending time with loved ones are also valuable relaxation tools. At our retreats, we create a safe space where you can truly let go, relax and let your body and mind heal. Lighting, temperature and especially sound are all potent forms of sensory stimulation that induce a feeling of safety and comfort, increasing the relaxation response.
Each of these methods can be practiced separately or combined for maximum efficiency. They are also non-secular, so you can bring your own spiritual beliefs.