By Dr. Nina Radcliff
Health Benefits of Relaxation & Refreshment
Research continues to underscore the great health benefits from the simple act of relaxation. Of course for many, taking time to relax is not so simple. Facts are that it may be hard to take a break or to even plan to take a day off “to relax” or chill on vacation. But rest and relaxation is important to maintaining your physical and mental health.
Giving ourselves a break, and some quality downtime – away from the daily hustle and bustle – works!! And it doesn’t really matter what the “relaxation”activity or inactivity is but rather to give yourself (body, mind, heart, and spirit) a chance to relax, refresh and recharge. While being “on” 24/7 is a part of our modern day, we are not designed to go 24/7/365.
Rest and relaxation are essential if we wish to function properly and effectively. And doing so will leave you feeling ready to take on the world once more – along with added health benefits.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need to Know: About Relaxation and Health Benefits
Sources define relaxation in psychology, as the emotional state of low tension, in which there is an absence of arousal that could come from anger, anxiety or fear – or a too demanding, busy lifestyle. According to the Oxford dictionary, “Relaxation is when the body and mind are free from tension and anxiety (resting mind and body). It may mean re-establishing equilibrium after a disturbance.”
How to relax? It’s about a process – and understanding that taking time to yourself for rejuvenation and relaxation is just as important as giving time to other activities. At minimum, take short breaks during your busy day. Or, purposely schedule time off just for yourself so that you can recharge for all the other things you need to do.
Some use the time to reinvigorate spiritually by going to services or retreats, while others turn-off the alarms and phones, sleep in, get a massage, escape to scenic places or just give themselves the gift of a day–off to wander. And there are those who feel that working up a sweat in the backyard or taking a long walk, hike, or trip on their bike is just what the doctor ordered.
Relaxation can range from simple and easy, as discussed above, to more complex, deep relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and meditation that may require some level of training in order to develop the “skill.”
What are the benefits? Activities that relax us help to neutralize and reverse the stress response. Facts are that whatever relaxation techniques you select, it will support de-stressing and help you enjoy a better quality of life with many added health benefits, including:• Supports Cardiovascular System:Relaxation helps you to reduce stress, anxiety and the fight/flight response. While the ‘fight or flight’ response can cause inflammation and disease, the ‘relaxation response’ can benefit numerous physiological systems by reducing the activity of stress hormones—adrenaline and cortisol. In doing so, it decreases your heart rate and blood pressure and, consequently, the amount of work your heart must do.• Improving Sleep Quality, Concentration and Mood: Better concentration and focus makes life easier and more productive, and you can help make it happen with a habit of relaxation. Studies show that by relaxing, we can reduce fatigue and tiredness as well as anger and frustration. This helps to lower levels of stress hormones and induce calmness and an improved mood—along with boosting confidence to handle problems. And add to this, relaxation supports a better night of quality sleep — playing a vital role in making sure that you’re functioning your best throughout the day. It all adds up, doing wonders for your memory, concentration, mood and stamina.• Fight infections and disease: Facts are that when we don’t stop to take time and relax we are opening the door to illness. Clinical studies have shown that relaxation creates shifts in hormone levels to repair cells as well as increased levels of helper cells that defend against inflammation and infectious disease. Recently, researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered that long-term practitioners of relaxation methods, such as yoga and meditation, had far more active “disease-fighting genes” compared to those who practiced no form of relaxation.• Improving Digestion: Since digestion begins in the brain, maintaining a calm state of mind can aid with healthy digestion. Being relaxed allows us to recognize that our meal is coming and perceive the food we eat (along with the sight and smell). This triggers the salivary glands to begin producing saliva which is necessary for the stages of proper food breakdown—and also helps to lessen the burden on the stomach and pancreas. When we do not properly digest our food in our stomachs, the food can reflux or flow backwards into the esophagus that results in discomfort and uncomfortable symptoms. Eating in a relaxed manner in our busy-busy-busy world, will help improve your digestion.• Reduce Muscle Tension and Pain: Pain can arise from many different causes: backache; arthritis; chronic migraines; cancer; and after surgery. Deep relaxation is believed to soothe brain patterns that underlie pain, and, over time, alter the structure of the brain itself—thereby decreasing pain perception. The patients in a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, who included the full range of those typically seen in pain clinics, were able to lessen or, in some cases, stop altogether their use of pain drugs from relaxation exercises. Four years after their training ended, the majority of patients were still faithful in their use of the relaxation practice, and still reported a decrease in pain and less reliance on drugs to control it.• Helps to Maintain Normal Blood Sugar Levels: Studies have shown that relaxation and/or meditation – along with exercise – significantly reduced stress and lowered blood sugar levels. While hormones such as glucagon and cortisol cause blood sugar levels to go up and are secreted during stress, relaxation methods like yoga and mindfulness-based stress reduction decrease them. And, over time, can help to correct insulin secretion problems in chronic diabetes.
Relaxation is being used clinically in much larger ranges of medical problems than the research so far has been able to assess. This includes the management of side effects of medical procedures such as kidney dialysis and cancer chemotherapy; gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome; insomnia; emphysema; asthma; and skin disorders.
I understand that when faced with numerous responsibilities and tasks or the demands of an illness, relaxation techniques may not be a priority in your life. But that means you might miss out on the health benefits of relaxation. While not always easy – it is possible. Take breaks and give yourself “me time.” Try taking the scenic path home tonight or, perhaps, plan to start your weekend on Thursday.
Relaxation is an important part of taking care of yourself. It does not matter which type of relaxation you use but to discover your favorites. When you make time to practice relaxation regularly you will become skilled at doing which ever method suits you best – and you will notice the health benefits. Enjoy!!
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.