Stress is pervasive in our frenzied lives, but how many of us know how to truly relax? To find the answer to this question, I talked to stress management guru Eli Bay and discovered that you don’t have to be lying on a beach in the Bahamas to unwind.
Bay, founder of the Relaxation Response Institute in Toronto, believes that most of us confuse relaxation with recreation. “People think they’re relaxing if they go to the cottage, or take the dog for a walk, or have a couple of drinks.” Not that these activities are bad–everybody needs to recreate themselves and have fun, says Bay, “but they don’t give us the deep, healing rest that our bodies are crying out for.”
A Crazy New World
Our ancestors had a biological ability to react to change now commonly called the fight-or-flight response, where the sympathetic nervous system pumps out adrenaline and prepares the body to react.
Bay explains: “If they were on a hunt and suddenly something large ran through the bushes, our ancestors were able to react to that change as a threat. Over evolutionary time, this ability became hardwired into every nervous system.” This biological response is what we perceive today as stress.
Stress can be a healthy, productive force in our lives, spurring us on to meet deadlines, avoid fender benders, or win a tennis match. The problem is that our bodies are simply not built to handle the demands placed upon it today. Our sympathetic nervous system is constantly firing up or being turned on at low levels by our chaotic world. Stress builds up and eats away at our genetic weaknesses until eventually something breaks down.
Know Your Enemy
We can’t avoid stress, as stressors are all around us, but we can mitigate its damage. “The issue is to learn to recognize when you have exceeded the optimal stress for you and develop strategies that you can employ to keep your stress in the safe zone. Literally, the only way to avoid stress is to be dead,” says Bay.
At his institute, Bay teaches people how to become self-aware and self-regulating. “I use breathing, muscle relaxation, and meditative and visualization techniques, but it ultimately comes down to a greatly heightened awareness of when people are tense and tight. They learn to recognize what that feels like,” says Bay. Once we are aware of where the tension lies, we can banish it.
Take a Breather
Out of all the techniques Bay teaches, conscious or deliberate breathing is probably the tool that people use most, because it’s simple and it works.
“Most people never pay attention to their breathing. They breathe from when they’re born until they die and never notice it. When people pay attention, they discover that when they’re depressed, angry, stressed, or anxious, their breathing will be shallow and in their chest. When they’re relaxed, their breathing will be deeper down into the bottom third of the lungs and diaphragm.”
Bay teaches diaphragmatic breathing exercises where one deliberately breathes down into the bottom third of the lungs. “Just by doing that, you can literally change the internal chemistry of your body. When you breathe as if you are relaxed, you become relaxed, and you can do it anywhere–you can be standing in front of hundreds of people, lying in bed, or [sitting] behind a desk.”
By using diaphragmatic breathing in concert with other techniques, one can reach an unusual state of deep, healing rest that counteracts the stress reactions of the body. In this state, “the body goes to sleep and the mind becomes extremely alert. It’s different from sitting quietly, or from sleep–it’s a creative, regenerative state.” When truly relaxed, we can effectively trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the effects of the sympathetic nervous system.
The ability to trigger this response is a skill that must be learned. “I differentiate between techniques and skill. There are people who listen to my techniques for years, but they don’t necessarily develop the skill that enables them to do it on their own.” Bay believes that if one concentrates and practises daily for about half an hour, it will only take about three to four weeks to develop the skill to switch into a relaxed state of mind. For more information, visit elibay.com.