December 23rd, 2016
You’re feeling good stress when you are excited about getting together with loved ones, looking forward to sharing gifts, meals, and holiday traditions. Bad stress is feeling overwhelmed by it all, being pressed to get all those gifts bought, wrapped, and distributed in time, while at the same time preparing all that delicious food to serve to your guests, and getting the house in shape too.
The same parts of your brain cause both good and bad stress. The brain’s stress response turns on to give you the energy and focus to get all those things done – that’s the good stress bit. But when the stress response goes into overdrive for too long, that’s bad stress – and it can make you get sick.
What about relaxation – is there “good relaxation” and “bad relaxation”? I believe there is.
Harvard’s Dr. Herbert Benson coined the term the “relaxation response” to describe the brain’s way of countering the stress response. Just as there are brain pathways, hormones, and nerve chemicals that drive the stress response, there is a nerve pathway that underpins the relaxation response. It’s called the vagus nerve.
There are many ways to turn on the vagus nerve and the relaxation response. Most involve deep breathing: meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, gentle exercise, like walking, even prayer. Massage therapy and acupuncture can do it too. These all induce a deep, restorative kind of relaxation, which stops the stress response in its tracks. It’s as if you’re driving down the highway at 90 miles an hour, and you put on the brake – the gas pedal is the stress response and the brake is the relaxation response.
I call all these integrative, mind-body approaches to relaxation “good relaxation.”
But there is also what I call “bad relaxation,” most of which involve prolonged sitting, like couch-potato television viewing, or being glued to your computer screen for hours at a time. There is mounting evidence that prolonged sitting bouts and a sedentary life-style like these, are bad for your health.
So at this hectic time of year, take time out – even just a couple of minutes or so, for some “good relaxation,” especially when you feel like your good stress is turning into bad. Try to avoid “bad relaxation.” Turn off the computer and TV. Instead take a walk with friends, or go outside to toss a football, take a walk, or build a snowman. Or, if you can’t spare the time to relax, try one of Dr. Andrew Weil’s deep breathing exercises [Link] – they take hardly any time at all. You’ll block that bad stress response and shift the anxiety it causes back to where it gives you the energy to enjoy the holidays!