Healing Power of Relaxation
Tapping into the Relaxation Response
Our nervous system must react and respond to our thoughts, emotions and external environment to change how we perform and feel. As a result our nerve activity must continually change and adapt.
We can tap into this adaptive power of our nervous system to help us feel better, reduce physical symptoms and heal form illness or disease.
The fight or flight response is an adaptive response that allows our bodies to function at a heightened level or performance during a time of perceived threat. A perceived threat could be that of physical harm, psychological, emotional or other personal harm. For this reason the fight or flight response is often called the stress response.
Nerve control of the relaxation and stress response
The limbic system is a specialized network or brain circuit that modulates our emotions, desires, and drives. The limbic system connects with higher level brain centers influencing our very thoughts and activities. The limbic system or emotional brain and the higher order cognitive centers work together to guide the appropriate balance of activity including activity of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus helps regulate our hormonal balance, circadian rhythm or sleep wake cycle, temperature regulation, and degree of alertness. The hypothalamus in turn regulates brainstem and autonomic pathways called the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system.
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight or flight response and the parasympathetic controls the relaxation response. The cascade of emotional, cognitive and physical drives serves as a control switch that changes the balance of these two systems based on the body’s needs.
The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for fight or flight and causes the following changes:
- Dilated pupils
- Rapid breathing
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increase alertness
- Increase muscle tension and shaking
- Activation of your adrenal glands
- Shunting of blood from your internal organs to muscles for action.
The parasympathetic nervous system balances the sympathetic system allowing our body to return to a restorative calm state once the threat is over allows us to rejuvenate and be ready for the next threat. Body changes caused by the parasympathetic system are:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased pulse
- Deep breathing
- Reduced muscle tension
- Reduced anxiety
- Emotional wellbeing
- Shunting of blood to internal organs such as the GI tract for digestion.
This dual system of control works well for acute stress allowing us to do what we need to do during times or threat or stress then rest and recover in between. The problem arises when we experience chronic stress. Chronic stress shifts the natural balance toward an over active sympathetic response with fewer times of recovery, and chronic activation of adrenals.
Chronic stress increases the tone and level of activation of the sympathetic stress response. Modern life brings many stressors with our busy jobs, traffic, increasing demands, unmet expectations, financial insecurities, multitasking, and even loneliness. Living with a chronic disease adds to this stress. With chronic stress the body changes described above becomes less adaptive. There is no restoration. There is an increase in stress hormones especially cortisol. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol can cause anxiety, fatigue depression, anxiety, sleep problems, muscle pain (especially back, shoulder and neck), weight problems, ulcers, high blood pressure and heart disease. Other problems associated with chronic stress include decreased immune system function, reduced pain tolerance, increased risk of diabetes and even plays a role in progression of cancer.
Stress and Parkinson’s disease
Stress can worsen symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. You are well aware of this if you have tremor, dexterity problems or freezing and have noticed these symptoms get worse when you are stressed. Stress could be physical - such as pain or fatigue, the stress of a medical condition, change in sleep, emotional and psychological.
You may also notice the opposite is true- that your Parkinson’s or other health symptoms can feel better when you are relaxed, enjoying a particular activity or on vacation.
Research on animals show that exercise helps protect dopamine nerve cells from damage caused by a neurotoxin, MPTP. If the animals are stressed and exercised this protection is no longer found. It is no known how this research applies to people. Certainly more research needs to be done on the affect of chronic stress and Parkinson’s disease.
What does this mean to you?
The accompanying article, Take a Moment- To Relax,
can help you 'pencil in' a little relaxation time into your hectic life.