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Using science to understand stress and relax your mind

Convincing your mind (and body) to calm down can be no small feat. Find out what’s happening, and what you can do about it.

While we’re all unique, we also share certain things in common—among them living, breathing and getting wound up from time to time. But what exactly is going on in our brains and bodies when we’re tense or on edge? And even more importantly, what are some ways we can hack our bodies’ relaxation response to handle stress more efficiently, and in so doing, feel better, sooner?

What’s happening in your brain (and body) when you’re stressed

When you’re faced with something dangerous or challenging, a small-but-mighty part of your brain, called the amygdala is activated. When the amygdala perceives danger, it sends an SOS to the hypothalamus, which then sends the command to release stress chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine) into your bloodstream.

From there, your pulse and breathing accelerate, your muscles tense, and you may even start to sweat. This is known as the fight-or-flight response, wherein your body prepares to face danger (or run away from it) by speeding up your heart rate and breathing and pumping your muscles full of blood and glucose. All of this happens very quickly, typically before your brain’s visual centre even has a chance to fully process what’s going on.

While this is a healthy response when you’re truly in danger and can help keep your energy and alertness up for essential tasks and projects, too much of it can become harmful to your health.

For many of us, finding a way to put on the brakes, and move from a state of stress to a calmer, more relaxed state is a regularly occurring challenge.

The relaxation response, and how to encourage it

The relaxation response, a term coined by Dr Herbert Benson of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, is defined as your ability to encourage your body to do the behind-the-scenes work of calming down. This includes relaxing muscles, releasing chemicals and increasing blood flow to your brain.

Fortunately for all of us, there are plenty of simple ways to turn off our fight-or-flight reactions and bring our bodies and brains back to pre-stress states. Read on for a few of our favourite evidence-based techniques.

4 science-backed ways to encourage your mind to relax

Spending time in green spaces can make a difference in your stress levels. So get outside.

Motoki Tonn via Unsplash

1. Breathe deep.

The science of breathing has been around for centuries. Which makes sense, breathing is so fundamental it’s unconscious. It’s also one of the first things to change when we’re feeling stressed or afraid—we automatically start taking quick, shallow breaths, without engaging our diaphragms. Interestingly enough, research shows it’s making our breathing conscious, aka controlling it, that can induce calm, even in a storm of feelings.

Get familiar with this technique with guided exercises like Foundations’ 4-7-8 breathing or get step-by-step advice on how to use breathing to relax your mind in our blog post How five minutes of this breathing exercise can make a big difference.

2. Get out(side).

This particularly applies to anyone who spends most of their days indoors. Leaving your screens behind and heading to the great outdoors (a nearby park or garden counts) can make a real difference in your stress levels.

Studies show that spending time in nature can reduce stress and anxious feelings. And while depending on where you live, and your personal and work obligations, this may not be possible for you, spending time outdoors during daylight hours is a great way to boost your mood.

3. Relax your muscles (progressively).

There’s a certain internal logic to the idea of relaxing your muscles to relax your brain after stress causes your brain to tense those muscles.

This technique, wherein you tense and relax individual muscles one-by-one, is used to reduce stress in the moment, improve sleep, and provide symptom relief for conditions such as headaches, high blood pressure and digestive disturbances.

For help getting started, try Foundations’ Progressive muscle relaxation— it only takes 10 minutes.

4. Play with a pet.

Have a furry (or scaled, or feathered) friend at home? Spend five to ten petting, or playing with your animals, and feel how your worries sort of melt into the background (however temporarily).

And if this doesn’t sound very science-based, you might be surprised. A recent study linked showing affection to pets to reduced stress. Besides, we’re pretty sure your animals won’t complain.

How do you convince your mind to relax when you’re feeling stressed? Share your favourite techniques with us at foundations@koahealth.com.