The Art of Relaxation: 10 Highly Effective Ways to Relieve Stress Naturally
BY DR. BONNIE MCLEAN
Even though the oriental and indigenous cultures have long linked emotions to health and illness, it took us in the west until the 1940s to begin to understand how the mind and emotions affect the body. Our studies began with Dr. Hans Selye, known as the “father of stress.” With the new knowledge on epigenetics and brain physiology, this field is exploding into a truly integrative way of looking at many sides of this mind/body link.
Dr. Selye was a Canadian endocrinologist who spent thirty years (1940s–1970s) researching the stress response and its link to chronic disease. He was the first to say that not all stress is bad and made a distinction between eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress). Dr. Selye came to the conclusion that stress is normal and can even have positive effects on us. In fact, in the right amount, it can improve brain function, make us more creative, help us get fit, lower our risk of breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and lots more. It is chronic stress and a lack of stress management techniques that can lead to many chronic diseases.
The Fight-or-Flight Response
Dr. Selye was the first person to identify the fight-or-flight response. His theory was that this response is actually a natural survival mechanism that humankind has had since we lived in caves. Humans needed a way of quickly responding to danger. Our bodies developed a process of diverting energy from storage sites throughout the body to the muscles so we could fight or flee.
When this mechanism kicks in, those bodily processes unessential for emergency survival (such as digestion, reproduction, and the immune system) are inhibited, and the emergency survival mechanisms (such as circulation and respiration) are stimulated. The heart and lungs speed up to provide more oxygen to the body. The blood vessels constrict to move the blood more quickly.
When we perceive any kind of threat to our survival or even to our sense of well-being or homeostasis (balance), it is registered in the midbrain—first the amygdala and then the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus in turn activates two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. The sympathetic nervous system uses the nerve pathways to initiate reactions in the body; the adrenal-cortical system initiates reactions using the bloodstream. The combined reactions are the fight-or-flight response.
The adrenal glands play an important part in this entire process and are rejuvenated by stress relief techniques. These two glands sit on top of the kidneys and are each made up of two separate parts combined into one gland. The outer portion is the adrenal cortex.The inner portion is the adrenal medulla. Both are involved with the fight-or-flight response. The adrenal medulla secretes adrenaline (a stimulant) and the adrenal cortex secretes a number of hormones, including cortisol (an anti-inflammatory hormone). The pancreas also plays a role because it secretes insulin and glucagon, which provide the body with energy. The brain and nervous system cooperate by adjusting the neurotransmitters throughout the body. For example, the opioids, such as endorphins, are increased to deaden pain. Serotonin, the “feel-good chemical” is decreased. This increases aggression to help us defend ourselves (Sapolsky 2004).
How Stress Affects the Body
The sudden flood of adrenaline and other hormones causes changes in the body that include:
+ increase in the heart rate and blood pressure
+ dilation of the pupils to take in as much light as possible
+ constriction of the veins to send more blood to major muscle groups
+ tensing of the muscles involved in running or fighting
+ increase in blood glucose to provide more energy
+ relaxation of the smooth muscles to allow more oxygen to the lungs
+ shutting down of the non-essential systems (like digestion and immune system) to allow more energy to the emergency functions
+ shift of the focus of the brain from small tasks to only the tasks
Dr. Bruce Lipton says that stress makes us think less clearly, and he explains why. When we experience stress, our blood supply gets fed to the hindbrain, which gets the body to speed up the reflexes of fight or flight. But with less blood supply, the forebrain, which houses logic, gets compromised, making us less logical and more reactive.
Stress hits our cells just as it does our whole bodies. Like the whole body, each cell also goes into the survival mode of fight or flight. This means they move out of a state of growth and reproduction into the fight-or-flight mode. If this state becomes chronic through a lack of regular stress relief, they become unable to function properly. This sets us up for chronic disease.
What a beautiful built-in survival technique in the initial stages! But if the fight-or-flight mechanism becomes a habit, stress becomes chronic. This is when it can become detrimental to our health if we don’t employ stress management techniques.
Dr. Selye described the progression of acute stress into a chronic condition in a process he called GAS (general adaptation syndrome).
The first stage is the alarm phase. The defense mechanisms of the body are alerted to respond to a stressor. This is the fight-or-flight response.
The second stage is when the defense mechanisms are in high gear and working to keep the body in balance. This stage has two parts: the resistance phase and the compensation phase.
The third stage is the exhaustion phase, when the body’s defense mechanisms are no longer able to maintain homeostasis, and the system begins to falter. This is the stage when the symptoms and disease motivate us to go to the doctor’s office or hospital. This final stage is what our contemporary mainstream medicine works with so well. It is in the second and third stages that preventive medicine works very well. This is the forte of the natural and complementary medicine community and why stress relief is so important.
The Symptoms of Being Over Stressed: Warning Signs You Need to Relax
Chronic stress affects just about all the systems of the body. It affects the circulatory system, which can lead to angina, migraine headaches, hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes.It affects the digestive system, which can cause stomach ulcers, colitis, diabetes, and being overweight or underweight. If the respiratory tract is affected, lack of stress management can lead to asthma and allergies. Even the muscles, joints, and bones can be affected, causing tension headaches, backaches, fibromyalgia, TMJ, osteoarthritis, and osteoporosis.
Plus, we are more accident prone when we feel stressed. Other common symptoms that are linked to chronic stress are nervousness, mild depression, allergies, digestive problems, irritable bowel syndrome, cold hands and feet, thin skin, and hair loss. Chronically raised levels of cortisol can lead to hypoglycemia, overeating, cravings for carbohydrates, and an increase in abdominal fat. There may be an increase in proinflammatory substances, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, increased triglycerides, lower HDL cholesterol and higher LDL cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, and even diabetes. Other problems can include decreased thyroid function, decreased immunity, decreased levels of estrogen and testosterone, mood changes, memory loss, and low levels of growth hormone. We may have low blood pressure, migraines, or fibromyalgia. Taken together these links show the need to incorporate of stress management techniques into our lifestyles, workplaces and doctors offices.
There are many lifestyle ways to reduce stress (such as eating a healthy diet and keeping our weight down, exercise, and meditation) that go a long way in preventing heart disease, as well as other chronic diseases that we’ll be diving into here a bit further along.
The 5 Types of Stress
When we think of stress, we usually think of psychological stress. But stress can also have environmental and biological causes. Psychological (mental and emotional) stress can come from both internal and external demands.
1. External demands may be such things as relationship issues, family pressures, financial difficulties, problems at work, juggling responsibilities of work and home, commuting on crowded freeways, or responsibilities as a caregiver.
2. Internal demands are self-induced. Think of the hard-driving “type A” personality that has almost become the norm for many of us in our modern lifestyles. We have been conditioned to believe that we must be ambitious, aggressive, and competitive to get anywhere in the business world. Being perfectionistic and having unrealistic expectations of ourselves also makes us push harder than our bodies can comfortably sustain.
We have unfortunately grown so used to living in the fast lane that we think it is normal. In fact, according to Sapolsky (2004), many of us are “stress junkies”—that is, we have become addicted to stress. But over time, all of the stresses can take their toll on our minds and bodies unless we engage in stress relief or use herbs and supplements for stress.
One example of biological (physical) stress is poor health. Chronic illness and chronic pain are certainly very stressful to the body.
3. Our lifestyle plays an enormous role in our health. How we eat; how much we exercise; how much fresh air, sunshine, rest, recreation, and sleep we get all play an important part in our general sense of well-being.
4. Dietary stress is common with our modern eating habits of eating fast foods, skipping meals, drinking excessive caffeine or alcohol, and eating refined sugars and flour. These foods keep our blood sugar on a roller coaster and create inflammation in our bodies. Our bodies are being asked to process foods that they don’t recognize because they were not eaten by our ancestors.
5. Environmental stressors may be harder to pin down. We also don’t know how toxic our air and water may be. We have no idea how we are affected by electromagnetic pollution (EMFs) from our modern technology, such as TVs, computers, electric wires, cell phones, iPads, and the Smart Meters on our homes. How many of us make it a priority to spend time in nature? All of this creates stress on our bodies. The question becomes: how do we reduce this stress? With all of the stressors to which we are exposed every day, I find it remarkable that we are able to stay as healthy as we are. The resilience of our bodies is amazing.
Natural Strategies and Techniques for Stress Management
Life brings us stressors for sure. Some things, such as environmental and electromagnetic pollution, we really can’t control, at least not on a daily basis, but we can control other things. We can certainly learn to practice better self-care. Along with lifestyle changes, there are a number of natural approaches and remedies we can use to help with stress management.
We have control of what we eat and how much we exercise, dance, listen to music, spend time with loved ones, and spend time in nature. We can practice yoga, do tai chi or qi gong, and learn to meditate. We can learn how to do breath work and how to practice mindfulness. We can nurture ourselves as much as we nurture others.
We can change our diet from the standard American diet to one that is more natural and nutritious. The healthiest diet is one of whole, fresh (unprocessed) foods, preferably organic. When using diet for how to reduce stress, we need to stay away from refined sugar, which contains no essential nutrients. In fact, it probably forces the body to use more of its nutrients. We also need to stay away from caffeine (coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate), which pushes us into the fight-or-flight mode. When we eat, we need to be relaxed. We certainly don’t need to be eating fast food on the run.
We can supplement our diets with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbs for stress, if necessary. We get our energy from carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Some have more nutrients than others. We need forty to sixty nutrients to stay healthy. These include vitamins, minerals, amino acids (from proteins), enzymes, and essential fatty acid. We tend to use more nutrients when we are going through periods of stress, especially the B vitamins and calcium. The B vitamins affect our nervous systems, and calcium counteracts the lactic acid that is produced by tense muscles. We need enzymes to properly digest and utilize the nutrients in food and supplements.
Disease, stress, aging, petrochemicals, and processed food contribute to a lack of proper levels of enzymes. Drugs, household cleaners, cleansing solvents, microwave radiation, and high heat also can inhibit enzyme production.
Natural Remedies for Self-Care
I am going to give examples of remedies for stress I use the most. Hopefully, these ways to reduce stress will pique your interest, and you then will research yourself and discuss options with your health practitioner. Keep in mind that these are just examples of many remedies that have been found to be effective. I recommend you use them in conjunction with your practitioner’s advice and treatments. They are not meant to replace any therapy or medications ordered by your physician.
Homeopathy is two hundred years old and is practiced around the world. This method of natural healing is designed to restore homeostasis and health to the body, mind, and spirit. This is the state in which self-healing happens. Homeopathic remedies are made from natural substances, such as plants, animals, and minerals. It works on a principle similar to that of vaccines, except it is done on an energy level. It’s called the Law of Similars.
Homeopathic philosophy is that a substance that creates a symptom, like a fever or pain in a healthy person, will cure a similar fever or pain in a person who is ill.
Homeopathic remedies are made by taking a tiny amount of the substance being used and diluting it. Alcohol is added as a preservative. The bottle is shaken a number of times, creating what I call an “energy inoculation.” The final form may be a tincture or pellets.
Homeopathic remedies are safe, but the system of diagnosing and treating may be complex. To find the best remedy, I recommend that you do your own research and see a natural health practitioner who has studied homeopathy and uses homeopathic remedies.
Here are some examples of remedies I use most for how to reduce stress-related problems:
+ Natrem Muraticum—grief
+ Chamomilia—anxiety, especially with stomach symptoms or Lachesis—irritability
+ Sepia—tendency to argue
+ Pulsatilla—tearful (Chappell 1994)
4. Herbs for Stress
The tonic herbs (tang kuei, hou shou wu, and ginseng) are good for preventing and treating chronic stress. To reiterate, tonic herbs are considered super-nutrients. They improve physiological functioning and a sense of well-being and boost energy. They can be taken individually, are generally safe, and can be taken on a long-term basis. If you have a known medical problem, I recommend that you consult your physician before taking them. Even though they are not in the medicinal category of herbs, tonic herbs are powerful and should be understood in order to use them wisely and appropriately.
If you are on medication, it is important to check with your physician or pharmacist about possible interactions with natural remedies. Just because they are natural doesn’t mean they are safe for you. When I recommend herbs, I advise that they be taken two hours separately from any allopathic medication and that they be started with a third of the recommended dose. The dose should be gradually built up to its maximum recommended dose, if needed, and never more than recommended. Here are some other herbs I use for natural stress relief; these are usually found in capsule, tablet, powder, tea, and tincture form:
+ Ashwaganda—an adaptogenic herb from India
+ Maca—an adaptogenic herb from South America
+ Chamomile—a Western herb that has a mild sedative effect
+ Passiflora (passion flower)—a Western herb that has a mild sedative effect
+ Hops—a Western herb that has a mild sedative effect (the ingredient in beer that makes us relaxed)
+ Valerian—a sedating Western herb that can be helpful for sleep (Buchman 1979)
5. Aromatherapy and Essential Oils
Aromas stimulate our sense of smell. They are perceived through the olfactory nerve, located very near the limbic center of the brain, which is the hub for the body’s stress alarm system. We can use scents, such as essential oils, for stress management.
Essential oils come from plants. Plants have been used throughout history to improve our health and quality of life. The essential oils from plants are referred to as the blood or “essence” of a plant.
They can benefit both the body and emotions as a form of natural stress relief. They are believed to support the immune system, provide natural pain relief, reduce inflammation, supply antimicrobials, nourish and strengthen the hair, improve mental clarity and lift the mood, and provide natural alternatives to household cleaners. There are many ways they can be used. They can be applied to the body or breathed in with a diffuser or steam. They can be added to bath water or placed on a pillow or eye cover.
Essential oils can differ widely in purity. A number of good companies supply essential oils. I would recommend you research the one you choose to learn how their oils are extracted and processed. Some essential oils that are considered to be adaptogens (help the body/mind stay in balance and thus provide ways to reduce stress) are:
+ Lavender—soothes and balances the body
+ Cedarwood—stimulates the limbic region of the brain, especially the pineal gland, which releases melatonin
+ Roman Chamomile—calms the central nervous system
+ Neroli—considered to strengthen and stabilize the emotions and encourage confidence and a sense of peace
+ Valerian—commonly used in sleep remedies. (The aroma is unpleasant, usually described as smelling like dirty feet.)
+ Sandalwood—balances and stabilizes the mind and helps to release negative emotions
+ Orange—has an antidepressant effect
+ Jasmine—considered to have a relaxing as well as an antidepressant effect
+ Frankincense—considered a “spiritual oil” that has an antidepressant and antianxiety effect by stimulating parts of the limbic system, including the hypothalamus, pineal gland, and pituitary gland
+ Ylang ylang—considered a “spiritual” oil, believed to filter out negative energy and help with focus and confidence
6. Flower Essences
These remedies are natural and gentle. Prepared from the flowers of wild plants, bushes, or trees, they are prescribed according to one’s mood and state of mind. They are based on the theory that a mind in disharmony is the primary cause of disease and that it will hinder recovery from an illness. Emotions such as fear or worry can deplete an individual’s vitality, causing the body to lose its natural resistance to infection and disease.
The original flower essences were created by Dr. Edward Bach, a renowned English physician who developed a pharmacopeia of thirty-eight remedies to treat what he felt were the most common negative states of mind that affect humankind. He divided these negative states of mind into seven groups under the following headings: fear, uncertainty, insufficient interest in present circumstances, loneliness, oversensitivity to influences and ideas, despondency or despair, and overcare for the welfare of others.
Flower essences are available from many parts of the world. I primarily use the Bach flower essences, but I also use essences from North America and Australia. They are taken in tincture form under the tongue.
Here are the flower essences I use most for stress management:
+ Rescue Remedy—stress, trauma, shock
+ Star of Bethlehem—shock
+ Rock rose, mimulus, cherry plum, aspen, and red chestnut—fear
+ Sweet chestnut—mental anguish
+ Mustard, gentian, gorse, and wild rose—depression
7. Color Therapy (Chromotherapy)
Dinshah P. Ghadiali, an Indian physician, introduced color therapy to the United States in 1920. Since then there has been more research done on the effects of color on the body/mind. The cool colors, such as blue and green, are believed to have a calming effect on us. Many waiting rooms of hospitals and doctors’ offices are decorated in these colors. The warm colors have an energizing and stimulating effect on us. Adult coloring books have become popular as a form of meditation and a relaxation technique.
8. Music Therapy For Stress Management
Since ancient times, Greek physicians used flutes, lyres, and zithers to heal their patients. They used vibration to aid in digestion, treat mental disturbance, and induce sleep. Aristotle (373–323 BC) wrote in his famous book De Anima that flute music could “arouse strong emotions and purify the soul.” The Bible mentions music in stories about King David. There is also a mention of the use of “joyful songs” for healing in Zephaniah 3:17.
From its ceremonial origins to modern medical uses, such as personal motivation, concentration, and shifting mood, music is a powerful healer and way to reduce stress. Doctors now prescribe music therapy for heart ailments, brain dysfunction, learning disabilities, depression, PTSD, Alzheimer’s, and childhood development. Many composers and musicians use music as a healing tool. One of the earliest US composers for healing music was Steven Halpern. His Healing Peace Music can be found in music stores, on Amazon, and on his website, stevenhalpern.com.
9. Other Tools and Techniques
The Mayo Clinic gives the following advice on how to release and reduce stress:
+ Physical activity
+ Relaxation techniques
+ Tai chi
+ Plenty of sleep
+ Eat a balanced diet
+ Avoid tobacco use, excess caffeine and alcohol intake.
There are simple tools and techniques for stress management that we can use, such as hypnosis, biofeedback, autogenic training, and energy psychology, such as EFT (emotional freedom technique), and tapping. Acupuncture, massage, reflexology, and many other natural medicines provide great natural stress relief. We can utilize our support system of friends, loved ones, colleagues, and animal friends. We can seek professional help, such as a psychotherapist, counselor, or hypnotherapist. The main thing to remember is that we are not victims. We can take control of our situation and turn it around.
Research in the fields of neuroscience and psychoneuroimmunology (how the mind, brain, and immune system interact) has provided us many cutting-edge approaches to stress relief. Since I was studying counseling psychology in the 1980s, I have observed the focus of psychotherapy move from addressing what is wrong with us to the enhancement of our strengths (i.e., how we can capitalize on what is positive in ourselves and our lives).
NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine) is a very informative educational organization that provides a platform for practitioners who are using many of the latest approaches in mental health. There is an annual conference, and webinars are offered throughout the year on subjects such as stress management, treatment of trauma, brain physiology, neuroplasticity, and neuropsychology. (See nicabm.com.)
Dr. Rick Hansen, PhD
Dr. Hansen, a neuropsychologist and meditation teacher, is one of the speakers for NICABM who provides a positive approach to psychological healing and stress relief. Interviewed in many webinars, he provides CDs and programs in which he offers a very user-friendly explanation of the fight-or-flight response and of the neuroplasticity of the brain.
Neuroplasticity means ability to change and remold itself. Dr. Hansen explains that the brain actually changes its structure according to our thoughts. If we have a habit of thinking negatively, there is actually a decrease in serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter) and our negative thinking gets perpetuated.
If we focus on positive things, such as gratitude, the area of the cortex that is connected with positive feelings will actually grow, perpetuating positive thinking, feelings, and outlook on life. He shows us how, through practices such as meditation, it is possible for us to actually rewire our brains (Hansen 2009; 2013).
The meditation and relaxation technique that Dr. Hansen most often teaches is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a way of thinking and focusing that can help you become more aware of your present experiences.
Research has shown that mindfulness can be helpful in stress management and calming anxiety. Mindfulness practice has two key parts: (1) paying attention to and being aware of the present moment; and (2) being willing to experience your thoughts and feelings without judging them. Mindfulness involves allowing your thoughts and feelings to pass by without clinging to them or pushing them away.
You just let them take their natural course. Regular mindfulness can help you notice your thoughts without judgment and be able to take a step back from them. It helps you develop more compassion toward yourself and others.
Dr. Hansen’s approach to living one’s life in a positive way reminds me of a quote in the Upanishads from ancient India: “Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your character and your character becomes your destiny.”
This article is excerpted with permission from the book Integrative Medicine: The Return of the Soul to Healthcare by Dr. Bonnie McClean.
About The Author
Dr. Bonnie McLean blends her background in traditional and holistic Western Medicine with Oriental Medicine and other ancient healing practices. She has 55 years experience in the healing arts. Dr. McLean received her BS in Nursing from Duke University in 1967 and practiced in hospitals, clinics, and home health for 20 years. She received her MA Counseling from Pepperdine University in 1976. In 1983 she graduated from California Acupuncture College in Los Angeles and obtained her license to practice acupuncture. In 1985 she received her Doctorate in Oriental Medicine. She is licensed in California and Florida. Dr. McLean promotes Integrative Medicine as an author and guest lecturer at universities and medical institutions. Visit her website spiritgatemedicine.com