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Five Ways to Relax at the Drop of a Hat

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a blog by Beth and Tami of Pulling Down the Moon, Apr. 16, 2010

I am addicted to lavender. While I’ve never been able to find clinical data to support this, it’s widely related in healing communities that chronic pain patients in lavender-colored rooms scented with lavender do much better than their counterparts. I do know that lavender essential oil helps me relax and when I sprinkle a bit on the DH, I believe he does become a bit more helpful . . .

But seriously, did you know the quickest way to relax is to use your senses?

By this point we’ve all heard about the Stress Response (sympathetic nervous system) and are, unfortunately, well-acquainted with its stomach-churning, heart-palpitating effects. We’re a bit less familiar with stress’ opposite – the Relaxation Response (parasympathetic nervous system). The Relaxation Response’s M.O. is “rest, digest and nest.” Instead of causing heart palpitations and butterflies, the Relaxation Response makes our heart and breathing rates slow. These two responses are closely related and their pre-historic origins provide essential clues about how to stop stress in its tracks.

Meet the limbic system. The limbic system is the area of the human brain located around and within the brain stem and is the oldest part of the human brain – so ancient that we can call it our “lizard brain” because it’s similar to brains of primitive animals like lizards and birds. Our lizard brain (marginally better than bird-brain, right?) has three main players:

    Hypothalamus: Our hypothalamus is concerned with maintaining the status quo in the body and regulates hunger, thirst, sex drive, etc. The hypothalamus also regulates the autonomic nervous system (the Stress Response and the Relaxation Response) in response to input from the hippocampus and amygdale.

    Hippocampus: The hippocampus takes short term memory and sensory input and cements it into long term memory.

    Amygdala: This part of the limbic system rules the “umph” in our reaction toward stimuli. In experiments where the amygdale is removed, animals become indifferent to stimuli which might otherwise make the afraid or even sexually aroused.

These three parts of the limbic system work together to create a reaction to sensory input way before the big, fancy human “reasoning” part of our noggin can even figure out what’s happening. (Ever wonder why the smell of chocolate chip cookies makes your stomach growl? Why the sound of waves makes you want a pina colada? Why the smell of antiseptic can send you into a panic attack after a D&C? That’s the limbic system.)

Now that we know the limbic system controls stress and relaxation in response to sensory input, we can use the following practice to condition our body to relax:

    For one week, set aside 15 minutes a day to breath quietly without any distraction. The next week, enjoy at least one sensory stimulus for five minutes prior to each relaxation session. With consistent practice, eventually just seeing, hearing or touching this sensory input will stimulate relaxation any time of the day.

Here are some relaxing sensory stimuli for each of the five traditional senses:

    1. Smell: Using aromatherapy during relaxation sessions can create an association between relaxation and aroma. Calming scents include lavender, vanilla, ginger and sandalwood.

    2. Hearing: Listening to calming music, particularly music without lyrics in your language, can be deeply soothing.

    3. Sight: Relaxing in a beautiful environment or gazing at a sunset can be deeply calming. Even lava lamps, with their beautiful colors and hypnotic movement, can promote peace.

    4. Taste: There’s a wonderful meditation where we see how long we can take to eat one raisin (or chocolate chip) while fully enjoying its texture, flavor and smell. Take time to mindfully enjoy one taste prior to your relaxation session.

    5. Touch: Self-massage is a wonderful way to send the “all-clear” signal to your brain. Here’s a simple massage that can stimulate clarity and relaxation. Let your fingertips meet at the mid-line of the skull where the base of your skull meets your neck. Now, with gentle pressure massage the center line of the skull up and over the head towards the crown and finally the forehead.

Be present, be positive . . . be sense-ibly relaxed.


Comments (3)

Practicing mindfulness is the best way to reduce stress for me. Aromatherapy comes in a close second but there seems to be a huge difference in the quality of essential oils. I ask my local co-op for recommendations. Thanks for the tips.
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Great comment! Yes, mindfulness is probably the best route to lasting relaxation but aromatherapy (and using the senses) is great for "stopping the bleeding." Many women are in such acute stress during the fertility journey that sitting down to meditate is intimidating. At the Moon we use these other cues to help them find calm in the moment. This work is always deeper when accompanied by some form of pranayama or meditation technique. We also hear you on the quality issue with essential oils. Very important!

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