Aaah relaxing. It is something that we know we need to make a conscious effort to do from time to time to avoid stress and burnout.
There is no doubt that relaxing has a positive effect on the mind. But what happens to the body when you relax?
Here, we have a look at the responses in our body when we take some time out for ourselves.
The relaxation response
The relaxation response is the name given to what happens when your parasympathetic nervous system takes charge of your body.
When you feel safe, the relaxation response kicks in and blocks the effects from your body’s response to stress.1
What is the parasympathetic nervous system?
The parasympathetic nervous system begins in the brain and extends out with long fibres connected to special neurons near the organ that they wish to act on.
The parasympathetic nervous system acts on the eyes, lacrimal glands that produce tears, salivary glands, nerves in the stomach and nerves which go to the bladder.2
The sympathetic nervous system is the one which produces a “fight or flight” response when you are under stress.
During this response, a large amount of epinephrine is released from the adrenal gland, there is an increase in heart rate, as well as the dilation of pupils and an increase in the amount of blood pumping around your body.3
All of these effects allow you to be ready to run if you need to.
The parasympathetic nervous system takes over, once you feel safe and relaxed.
So what are the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system?
When the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, it regulates the work of your organs and glands while you are relaxed, which is good for both your mental and physical health.4
Your heart rate slows
When you are relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system releases a hormone called acetylocholine.
This slows your heart rate down and helps your body to conserve energy.5
Cortisol levels decline
Cortisol is a hormone which helps the body deal with stressful situations.
When this remains high for a long period of time, it can cause high blood pressure as well as disrupting sleep cycles, give you mood swings, use lots of energy and makes the body store fat.
Once you relax, your body works to return cortisol levels back to normal, which is good for your overall health and wellbeing.6
Your memory improves
Theta brain waves are associated with relaxation and research has shown that stronger and longer lasting memories are created when the brain is influenced by these waves.7
Your brain will think more clearly
The stress chemicals cortisol and adrenaline disrupt the balance of brain waves.
Relaxation helps to shut down overactive bran waves and resolve the balance, allowing the brain to regulate and leaving you with a calm state of mind.8
Digestion gets back on track
When you are in the ‘fight or flight’ response, digestion is put on hold as your larger muscles are prioritised.
Stress can sometimes lead to digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Relaxation reverses this process and gets the digestive system working again.9
Your breathing slows down
When you are panicked, your breathing speeds up. Breathing too quickly can lead to low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood making you dizzy and weak.
Relaxation slows your breathing, allowing you to get all the oxygen you need.10
If you are feeling short of breath as a result of stress, try some meditation techniques to help you reach a state of calm.
Try breathing deeply and slowly through your nose. When your attention starts to wander, bring it back to your breath.
Your muscles relax
When you are feeling threatened, whether that be physically or mentally, your muscles tense up.11
Again, this is part of the fight or flight response, preparing you physically for either option. When you are feeling relaxed, this tension eases.
Of course, it is easy to talk about what your body does once you relax but it can sometimes be difficult to know how to get there, especially if you are feeling like you have got a lot on.
Some good ways to relax include meditation techniques as mentioned above, taking a long hot bath, listening to some soothing music, doing yoga or simply getting out and going for a walk.
Last updated: 21 April 2021