Stress Reduction and Relaxation

SR- Relaxation, Inspiration & Flow
Stress is an ever-present fact of life for most people at some time in their lives. For our purposes, when I refer to stress, I’m speaking of the physiological response to some event or situation that causes what is known as the “fight or flight response”. This is a thousands of years old evolutionary development that caused us to be able to react quickly when we saw a tiger coming for our group on the savannah. It developed for good reason, and it’s still really necessary, when all sorts of daily situations call for that type of quick response, both physically and mentally. The problem we have in our modern society is that we have difficulty distinguishing from real stress situations and responses and those that may not be life threatening. When that happens, the difficulty comes in not being able to return to baseline, or reset our bodies to a state where we’re not in a heightened response state. Over a period of time, our bodies and minds become “tuned for stress” and we go through life at a low level of fight or flight. The physiological effects of this can cause damage both in the short and long term. Some long term physical effects of constant stress are increased cholesterol that leads to heart disease, an impaired immune system, and increased inflammation, which is linked to a variety of health problems. There are also mental effects, which can be even more important for creatives to consider, since we are depending on the flexibility and quickness of our thoughts and ability to create. Ongoing stress can shorten the attention span, cause automatic or chronic habitual behavior, and cause people to be less likely to notice detail or perceive subtlety.
It can be hard to tease apart automatic stress responses and those that we bring on ourselves. Subjecting ourselves to deadlines, engaging in negative behaviors, allowing ourselves to be in a state of constant worry or anxiety are all ways that mental activity can cause mental and physiological stress responses.
There are 6 basic types of stress, 3 physiological and 3 psychological, as well as 6 basic types of relaxation techniques, which can counteract the response to stress events. Relaxation is a state of reduced tension, anxiety and stress. It can be considered the “baseline” or how we feel in the absence of some sort of stressful event or situation. Relaxation (R) states can be brought on with combinations of these 6 physical and mental techniques.

Sympathetic Nervous response:

holding a posture, crouching

holding muscles in chronic tension

short, shallow, rapid, breaths

autonomic stress/anxiety

negative imagery, self talk, thoughts

stressed attention focused negative aspect   -or-
divided attention multitasking/monkeymind

Parasympathetic response:

Stretching (Yoga, Pilates, Alexander)

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Deep Breathing (diaphragmatic)

Autogenic Training


Meditation- centered, concentrated focus

Mindfulness- free, open focus/perception

Relaxation (R) states can either eliminate or bring on a type of feeling. It’s good to remember that with discipline we can control how we feel, and are not at the mercy of emotions, anxieties and fears that can bedevil us. Increased ability to attain these states can have a direct impact on mental and physical health, immune system functioning and longevity. They can also have effects and achieve goals beyond stress relief, such as changing mood or heightening sensation.

disengaged (spatial, attitudinal, somatic)
physical relaxation
at ease/ calm (the feeling one gets upon the release of tension)

aware, focused, clear
quiet, stillness
mindful acceptance

deep mystery

The Vagus, from the Latin, meaning to wander, is a long central nerve system beginning at the middle of the brain, passing the limbic base, through the throat, regulating the heart and diffusing into the abdomen. It is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The vagus nerve transmits neural information to the brain about the state of other organs linking many visceral organs and systems including the throat, heart and gut to the nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS) of the brainstem.

In addition to the physical and mental stress regulation techniques above, here are other methods to regulate the vagus nerve and activate the PNS:

Humming- from the back of the throat releases nitric oxide, improves blood circulation and blood flow, reduces inflammation and tension, improves heart health, and lowers blood pressure. It is also known to have antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties which help to kill viruses and bacteria in the nose and throat.

Laughing- another throat stimulation, also releases dopamine.

Cold water reflex, rapidly activates PNS

Certain types of ambient (brainwave) music

Soft eyes, mindfulness focus

Spend time in green space/nature

         Information is relayed via the Vagus to the NTS, then projects to various forebrain areas involved in emotion and motivation such as the amygdala (emotion), hypothalamus (physio responses), and hippocampus (memory) areas. It has receptors for GABA, serotonin and oxytocin, among others.

         The biggest influencer on the strength of vagal tone — meaning the activity of the vagus nerve, are the trillions of microbes that reside in the gut, either by inflammation, which disrupts communication, or vagal tone, which reduces those negative effects. Regulating vagal tone via these endorphins and hormones affects our emotional state. One can regulate emotion and control ones’ vagal state by creating images representing categories of feeling using sensory imagery of place or situation. This can aid in learning to accept and manage overwhelming feelings and emotions.

Vagal                                              Sympathetic                                            Dorsal

happy, secure, comfortable                 anxious, mobile, activated          still, ruminating, depressed, dark

         Various emotional or relaxation states can be brought on with combinations of the above techniques, and this is a skill that can be learned. Learning to control ones’ responses, physical, mental and emotional states, can have a direct impact on all types of health. Some relaxation states to attain are:

energized, optimistic, joyful, aware, focused, stillness, rested, refreshed,

disengagement, reverence, awe, wonder, a sense of timelessness.

The following four steps are a process or a way to change the structure of thought patterns in the brain, redirecting thought, actions (behavior) or emotion to another way, state or idea.


Notice/Awareness – the ability to notice in the moment the thought, action or emotion to be changed or managed.

Analyze/Understand – looking at the thought, behavior or emotion, possibly understanding the origins, seeing whether it is valid or not, makes sense or not, and can be acted upon or not.

Non-Judgment/Self-Compassion – not demeaning or judging yourself, developing self forgiveness and friendliness.

Letting Go/Relinquishment – of thoughts. emotions, or behaviors. Do or do not do. Accept the emotion. Let the thought float away.