If the need for deep relaxation arises from the fact that most of us are chronically stressed without even knowing it, it begs the question, What is stress?
Here’s a simplified explanation of stress:
Stress begins when the mind perceives danger and signals the body that swift and strong action needs to be taken. In certain contexts, this is a highly functional response to perceived external threats that require a measure of physical exertion to protect our safety, such as a life-threatening accident or attack.
On receiving the signal from the mind, the body releases a burst of adrenaline, beginning a chain reaction of chemical activity all across the physiological system, switching us from ALERT OFF “rest and digest” mode (the parasympathetic nervous system) to the ALERT ON mode of “fight or flight” (the sympathetic nervous system), in which many crucial but temporarily suspendable bodily functions are shut down so that all the body’s energies can be diverted to dealing with the immediate threat.
This is part of our evolutionary design and was obviously highly functional for the survival of our hunting and gathering ancestors when faced with wild and dangerous animals on a regular basis. It continues to be functional for us when there is actual physical danger or when we want/need to to engage in intense physical activity.
The system is designed such that when the need for physical activity has passed—the tiger or bear is no longer a threat or the race has been run— we switch back to ALERT OFF “rest and digest” mode so that the other crucial bodily functions can resume. However, if there is a glitch in the system, and the trigger messaging from the mind continues unabated, the stress chemicals continue to flood the system and the ALERT ON “fight or flight” button gets shifted into increasing higher gears, priming us for increased levels and intensity of action. When there is no physical discharge of the energy and the threat continues to be perceived, stress hormones build up in the system and this leads to what is called “chronic stress”.
Because the ALERT ON mode shuts down important bodily functions, the body is simply not working optimally when we are chronically stressed: we are not digesting effectively therefore the body is not properly absorbing nutrition and fuel levels are depleted; we cannot eliminate effectively thereby experiencing toxic accumulation in the system; we cannot rest effectively so the body’s natural restorative and healing systems cannot function and the immune system becomes compromised either preventing recovery from injury or illness or leading to a new ailment; stress hormones have an effect on blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar and insulin resistance, putting us at increased risk of diabetes and heart attack. Chronically high stress hormones also negatively affect brain functions, such as memory and problem solving. They also play a role in how we eat, how the body organizes the calorific intake, affecting whether energy gets used or stored, thereby leading often to weight gain or making weight loss more difficult. Last but most certainly not least, stress hormones play a role in depression, reproductive function and sexual function. In short, chronic stress threatens can not only pose a significant threat to our life but greatly impinges on the quality of our lives.
Stress doesn’t care about gender, age or income-level. Whatever triggers our sense of ALERT ON and keeps us on the alert males us susceptible to the effects of chronic stress; whether you are a fire-fighter, a high stakes investment banker, a waiter in a very busy restaurant, a parent juggling work while shuttling kids from one activity to another, or a social networker anxious to keep up with all the latest online news and trends, chronic stress is a potential affliction if we don’t consciously make the switch from ON to OFF in our nervous system.