The Science of Stress and Chill: Freeing Ourselves from Chronic Stress-Response Activation

It’s easy to see that our world is plagued by an epidemic of stress. I see it on the faces of strangers all the time. Everywhere I look, somebody is stressed, and it takes a dedicated daily effort to ensure that our culture of stress doesn’t rub off on me.

Now and then I find myself sighing, noticing how there’s been an emotional weight sitting in my chest.

“Damn Ben, you’ve gotta chill out. Have I been feeling like this all day?

I’m often under more stress than I even notice. Many people experience the same condition…

Chronic stress takes a serious toll. It tenses up the muscles, makes breathing more difficult, messes with the hormonal and reproductive systems, puts us at risk for serious heart conditions, and has a number of negative effects on the gastrointestinal system.

Nobody is immune to the ups and downs of the world. We’re all going to experience some stress.

We can’t eliminate it, so we need to learn how to constructively respond to it.

To ensure that stress doesn’t run our lives or ruin our health, we need to be intentional about including de-stress time in our routines.

I’ll share the most effective ways of doing that later in this article, but first it’s important to get just a little familiar with the science of stress. Knowing the basics about how stress works makes us much better equipped to deal with it.

Stress and the Sympathetic Nervous System

Dr. Herbert Benson recognized the need for solutions to chronic stress as far back as the seventies. In 1975, he wrote a book called The Relaxation Response. The relaxation response is what happens when the body and mind chill out.

More specifically, we could say that the relaxation response is what happens when we learn to calm down our sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system prepares us for a “fight-or-flight” response to danger. It amps us up so we are ready for the strenuous physical activity needed to engage with a threat and survive. It is the part of the nervous system that catalyzes an adrenaline rush.

It does this through many avenues:

“Stress is its stimulant, and preparation for ‘fight or flight’ is its response. To that end it speeds the heart rate, opens the bronchial tree, stimulates the release of glucose from the liver, dilates the pupils, constricts arterioles in the digestive system and skin, dilates arterioles in the art, and contracts sphincters in the gastrointestinal tract and in the urethra.”

 From Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners by H. David Coulter

This “stress response”, as it is sometimes called, is useful for hunting and getting away from being hunted. That’s why our species developed it during our evolutionary ancestry.

It’s also useful for exercise. We need it to stimulate our physical systems so that a workout, well, actually works!

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Stress

It’s essential to know that the purpose of the stress response is to help us with quick bursts of intense activity. The response is supposed to go all-out for a short period of time, then stop completely so the body can come back to normal physiological regulation.

This works perfectly in the context of extremely dangerous situations when intense physical activity is needed. When you need to run from a lion, you need a quick and massive burst of energy. Then, when the ordeal is over, you don’t need that energy at all anymore. You need to rest.

Our systems evolved to respond to this kind of situation. They did not evolve to respond to stress situations which are low-intensity but exist long-term. Our bodies and brains did not evolve in the context of finishing semesters, looking for jobs, 12-month rent leases, etc.

The roles we need to fulfill and the tasks we need to accomplish for our survival and well-being have completely changed. But our spinal cords, hormonal systems, neurons, organs, and muscles work the same as they did for our pre-civilization ancestors.

So we’re dealing with totally new situations using ancient tools. We still use the stress response, but it ends up operating differently because the nature of modern stressors is so fundamentally different from the stressors humans once dealt with in the wild.

What ends up happening is that many of us in this modern world have our stress response chronically on low-activation. We almost never have to go into full adrenaline rush, but our sympathetic nervous systems are constantly turned on. Just at a low volume.

Maintained long-term, this is dangerously unhealthy.

Our systems weren’t ever meant to do this. The stress-response isn’t supposed to stay turned on for long periods of time. It didn’t evolve for that.

Almost everyone has heard that stress hurts your health. But that’s not totally accurate. What really hurts you is having the wrong kind of stress.

The body and mind should be a little stressed during exercise. The stress we create during physical activity builds muscle tone, strengthens the immune system, challenges our will, and has plenty of other benefits.

Notably, many of these benefits occur during the period of rest following intense activity.

Muscles get stronger because you create micro-tears inside of them during exercise, and then those tears are repaired during rest. If you stress the muscles again too soon after, they just break down more and don’t have the chance to build back up.

Similarly, mental stress isn’t too bad when we take time to recover. Going through tough situations builds our character by making us more emotionally resilient.

We run into problems when we’re always stressed. Whether there’s a serious persistent issue in your life, or if it’s just all the little things built up, holding on to stressors long-term will hurt you.

This kind of stress can be especially challenging to work with because it’s hard to notice. It’s still affecting us, but we’ve become adapted to it. It feels like our normal state.

So what can we do? How can we learn to recognize the stress that’s become built into our daily lives? How do we let it go and free ourselves from being conditioned to stress?

Activating the Relaxation Response

There are many good ways to activate what Dr. Benson coined the “relaxation response”. We absolutely can learn to turn off chronic stress. But we’ve got to do it regularly and with purpose.

We need to set aside time each day to practice the relaxation response. Without regular practice we won’t build the skill. Think of it as a technique you can develop; not as a pill you should swallow.

Every day when I get home from work, the first thing I do after putting my stuff down is set an alarm for a 15 – 20 minute “napitation”. Sounds nice, huh? It is 🙂

I just lay in my bed practicing mindfulness of the breath. Sometimes I end up sleeping for a few minutes and other times it becomes a more alert meditation. Regardless, the point is that I set aside a specific, defined time of day to practice relaxation.

I like the transition between work and home because it helps me let go of the stress from the day. It helps me be more present for the post-work part of my day. But maybe for you first thing in the morning is better, or right before you go to sleep.

Just pick a specific time to ensure you actually do it consistently. Apply all the good habit-formation techniques…

Here are three awesome, science-backed ways of activating your relaxation response:

Meditation & Mindfulness

Dr. Benson’s work popularizing the relaxation response is widely considered the pioneer effort to make meditation practice mainstream in the world of medical science.

His techniques involve a focus on breathing, progressive muscular relaxation, and repeatedly orienting attention away from thought. These are all common aspects of practicing meditation and mindfulness.

This website has an excerpt from Dr. Benson’s book on eliciting the relaxation response! His instructions are essentially instructions for a basic body and breathing-based mindfulness practice.

If you’d like to learn about several options for practicing meditation, or would like more in-depth coverage of mindfulness, check out my article:

Everything You Need to Know to Start Meditating: 4 Mindfulness Practices for a Crystal Clear Conscience”

Mindfulness practice is an excellent way of learning to use the relaxation response. It’s easily accessible because all you need is yourself! You can do it anywhere, anytime. This is probably the most straightforward way to go when it comes to countering our culture of stress.

Going Outside & Finding Nature

Scientific research abound purports the benefits of getting outside and spending time in nature. Check out this study showing how being in a forest can help us relax, or maybe this one telling us that even a walk in a city park can be beneficial.

Getting exposure to the great outdoors is especially helpful for stress relief. Studies upon studies correlate time spent outside with measures of reduced stress.

Our societies have become artificial insulations from the natural world. We spend so much time indoors, but pretty much our entire evolutionary history occurred outside!

We have built environments that do not at all resemble the wild surroundings humans occupied for hundreds of thousands of years before civilization. Compared to how long our species has existed, inhabiting cities and buildings is an incredibly recent development.

Think about that: most of the people who ever lived have not known this phenomenon we call “being indoors”.

Feeling sunshine on our cheeks, ground touching our feet, and a breeze on our skin gives that primal animal inside of us a comforting sense of familiarity.

All those wonderfully natural sensations counteract the numbing effect society has on our animal-selves. It’s a great relief; quite literally a “breath of fresh air”.

Being outside is one of the most powerful de-stressors. It’s best if you can get away from urban centers and into a forest, mountain, ocean, or other beautiful natural formation. I usually can’t, because I live in Boston without a car. But I still stroll up the street to see the colors in the sky, hear the birds chirping, and feel some leaves as I pet the bushes and trees I walk past.

Exercise

The other relaxation essential: exercise.

It’s sort of an oxymoron. Almost hypocritical. Isn’t exercise hard? Doesn’t it stress your body?

Yes, but when done right it gives you the good kind of stress. The kind that’s intense for a short period then goes away. Not the kind that stays for 3 months because you’re worried about a project at work.

When the stress response is active long-term, there’s a lot of energy that builds up and is never released. That’s essentially the source of all the problems: the body is gearing up for high-energy physical activity and then not doing anything physical.

Pushing yourself to crank out a few more pushups at the end of a workout feels stressful in the moment. But it feels damn great once you put your body back down, doesn’t it?

The same thing happens on a larger scale when we make exercise a habit. We experience high-stress physical activity for a small portion of our day, and then we feel great for the rest of the day!

Done regularly, exercise makes us feel more relaxed in general.

People who exercise at high intensities tend to have slower resting heart rates. Their bodies are dispelling excess energy during the workouts, and proceed to chill out more thoroughly when not exercising.

So get off the couch! Do some pushups at home. Get a gym membership. Go for a jog. Go skateboarding. Join a recreational sports league. Go sledding so you have to climb hills in the snow. If it’s fun and makes you tired then it’s good.

Conclusion: Chill with Purpose

I know, I know, this might sound kind of lame. It might even sound counterproductive. But you’ve got to plan-out how you’ll chill-out.

Oftentimes “plans” are the exact things that bring us stress. “The last thing I need is another plan, man, I just wanna relax!!”

But in today’s world “just relaxing” escapes us too easily. How often are you just trying to enjoy a beer and Netflix, when your mind drifts to that annoying thing at work? It happens to me all the time.

My plan involves that daily “napitation” I mentioned earlier. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I exercise at home after that napitation. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I go outside for either a long walk or a skate session.

However you do it, you need to plan relaxing activities to make sure that you actually do them.

I would recommend finding something easy you can do for a short period of time every day, like a 5-minute meditation. Then, block out a larger chunk of time once or twice a week for something you enjoy a lot, like going for a hike or playing basketball.

If it were up to me I’d make the whole world chill out a lot more. Wouldn’t you? You can start with yourself today. Find time to chill with purpose. Then, enjoy 🙂

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