Long term or chronic stress and the relaxation response

Cat asleep in a small bed

Stress is something we all casually mention in conversations, about work, home or general life situations, but what does stress in the body actually do to us? This depends on whether we’re talking about a short-lived single stressful incident (road rage, an interview etc), or ongoing stress for days, weeks or months.

Cat asleep in a small bed
Cats are very good at the relaxation response! Image CC0 from Pixabay

Recently in the UK it was Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20th May 2018) and the theme for the week was stress. In my workplace there were various sessions on different aspects of mental health, and I gave a session on chronic (long term) stress. The session included theory and practice and I made a handout as a summary for people to take away. I’ve put it in my Google Docs so you can view or download it too (‘Stress and the body’s response’).

The handout is a very brief summary of what happens in the body when we experience stress (the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response) as a single incident. This is a beneficial response of the body and helps us deal with challenging situations. What is less helpful is if the stress continues and the body can’t recover. Ongoing stress begins to have an harmful effect on our bodies in relation to a number of important systems such as the immune and circulation systems.

But, do not despair! We have the ability to help ourselves heal and turn down the stress response by activating an opposing system, the relaxation response, also referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ response. Deep breathing, breathing with extended exhales, calming yoga or tai chi practices, meditation and massage are all great ways to trigger the relaxation response. For more detailed info read my handout.

You may also like this video which specifically looks at the harmful effect of long term stress on various systems in the body.


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