Strees and Stress Reduction
Andrews Weil suggests that we have a basic need to achieve “altered states of consciousness.” He alludes to the fact that individuals from many cultures throughout history have engaged in behaviors that have produced a “natural high” and have reduced stress and tension. These activities usually involved physical exertion, quiet meditation, breathing exercises and/or risky and exciting ventures or pastimes. Herbert Benson likewise feels that many of these activities activate the “relaxation response,” which is opposite to the “fight-flight” response. He suggests that activities that elicited the relaxation response became part of a society’s religious and spiritual tradition, passed down from generation to generation.
ACTIVATING THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
The activation of the “relaxation response,” in opposition to the activation of the “fight-flight” response, lies in the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. When this system is stimulated by a rhythmical activity in meditative activities such as chanting, breathing in a pattern, or saying prayers over and over, the individual begins to feel calm, relaxed, and anxiety free. When the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system is activated by any of these activities, the following physiological reactions occur:
1. Slowing of heart rate
2. Decrease in respiration
3. Decrease in metabolism
4. Increase in salivation and digestion
5. Decrease in blood pressure
6. Increase in alpha brain waves
7. Feeling of relaxation
8. Feeling of warmth and heaviness
In 1970, R.K. Wallace published results concerning the physiological effects of meditation, which are similar to the effects of parasympathetic nervous system stimulation. He showed that during meditation, oxygen consumption of the body was decreased. The production of lactic acid was also decreased, thus indicating a slowing down of metabolism. A decrease in heart rate and cardiac output indicated a reduction in the workload of the heart. The skin had an increased resistance to the passage of an electrical current, indicating decreased arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. An increase in slow theta and alpha brain waves indicated a more restful state. Wallace found that meditators he studied were in a restful and relaxed state after meditation. They were awake, alert, and exhibited increased reaction time, improved coordination, and improved hearing ability. Some meditators indicated that meditation resulted in a “natural high.” These effects of meditation appear to result from the activation of the parasympathetic system and perhaps even the creation of natural opiates in the brain.
As has been previously mentioned, “natural opiates” and their receptor sites have been found in the brain. These brain chemicals-endorphins- have been found to block pain and to create a feeling of euphoria or a “high’ much like opiates. It is thought that the “high” or euphoria from vigorous physical exertion, risky activities, gambling, meditation, and starvation may be due to the production of these brain chemicals. In theory, the endorphins, and probably other brain-manufactured “drugs,” are released in response to both physical and psychological stress and/or other physiological states. This release may be induced by stimulation of the autonomic nervous system; however, research is not yet conclusive as to the mechanism of this phenomenon.
The Altered State or “Flow” Experience
Csikszentmihalyi discusses similar states that are described by individuals who become absorbed in various creative and recreational activities. A person who is completely involved in an activity, whether it be chess, rock climbing, the arts, dance, or anything else, often experiences certain subjective feelings called the “flow state.” The flow state is a feeling of unified flowing from one moment to the next in which the person is in control of his/her actions and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, past, present, and future, stimulus or response. While in the flow state, the person usually does not think of him/herself as being separate from what he/she is doing. Individuals in the flow state are usually oblivious to their surroundings and describe what they experience in the following ways:
- in control of their actions, even if it is a potentially dangerous activity
- a general feeling of well-being
- an altered sense of time
- a merging of action and awareness
- clarity and manageability of limits happiness, health, vision
- integration of mind and body
- understanding of true self and self integration
- sense of place in the universe and oneness of nature
This sense of flow, or altered state, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is what causes certain individuals to sacrifice power, fame, and money for such things as artistic creativity, hobbies, and other recreational and sports activities. He implies that this flow or altered state experience can be a strong motivator for many individuals and can be an alternative to drug use.
There appear to be many types of activities that can elicit positive feelings, produce a “high” or flow experience, or reduce stress. These non-drug activities can be considered alternative highs to drugs if stress is reduced and the person is able to become involved in the positive flow experience. However, it is possible to become psychologically dependent upon anything, including any of the alternative highs, exercise, or stress reduction activities. Therefore, it is suggested that all methods that attempt to elicit relaxation, altered states, or the flow experience be done in moderation in an attempt to prevent them from becoming addictive behaviors. The activities that elicit these positive altered states fall into the categories of active and passive alternatives.
Active alternatives include vigorous physical exercise, risky ventures, and recreation and sport activities. Since at least early Greek times, physical conditioning and sport activities have been engaged in by different segments of many cultures. Individuals who excelled at various activities were often highly respected by their society.
The active types of physical activity have been found to alleviate tension once the stress response has occurred. Physical activity has also been found to produce a feeling of well-being, tranquility, and an altered state in both adults and children.
Rhythmic physical exertion such as running, jogging, fast walking, swimming, bicycling, and dancing are thought to create a training effect. In the training effect the heart and other muscles are made stronger and the respiratory system has an increased capacity to take in air and exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. The hormonal system and metabolic reactions are also strengthened in their ability to cope with stressors. During physical activity, all of these systems are stimulated for action. However, about ninety minutes after a good physical bout of exercise, a feeling of deep relaxation occurs. To benefit from the training effect, one needs to accomplish the exercise at least three times a week for at least twenty minutes at a time. Other vigorous activities such as self defense and active sports can also promote feelings of well-being and fitness.
Jogging, Running, and Fast Walking. The cheapest vigorous exercise is jogging, running, or fast walking. You do not need any special equipment and can do it almost anywhere and in any season. This type of exercise can help you lose weight, decrease the appetite, and keep you in good physical shape besides eliciting an altered state and reducing tension. The only disadvantage is that jogging and running may cause knee injuries in some people. This is often found among those who tend to “push themselves.”
Before you start a jogging or running program, you should check with your physician to make sure that you do not have a serious medical condition. This is especially true if you are over the age of forty. Many individuals have suddenly died of heart attacks after a bout of exercise, such as snow shoveling, when they had not exercised for years.