How Your Body Changes When You're Relaxed

If you're feeling more stressed than usual these days, you're not alone. Americans are among the most stressed-out people in the world, beaten only by Greeks, Filipinos, and Tanzanians in reported stress levels (via Smithsonian Magazine). 55 percent of Americans report feeling stressed every day, and a whopping 83 percent struggle with work-related stress.

While reasons for the high national stress level might be varied, one thing is for sure — the effects are far-reaching. Decreased immunity, higher blood pressure, ulcers, anxiety, and depression are just a few of the long list of negatives that are associated with long-term stress. Not to mention the 120,000 deaths and the $190 billion of health-care costs that are associated with workplace stress, according to the American Institute of Stress.

This is where deep relaxation can make a world of difference. Psychologists refer to the 'relaxation response' as the body's way of countering stress. And by 'relaxation,' they're not talking about chilling in front of the TV. It refers to a deep state of rest in which your responses to stress — both physical and emotional — change.

Herbert Benson, M.D., speaking at the American Psychological Association (APA) annual convention, told his peers (via APA), "You as psychologists can use the mind like you would use a drug." Deep relaxation includes a change in outlook, from an adrenaline-fueled 'fight or flight' response, to an 'ahhh' response.

Relaxing comes with health benefits

James Webb, M.D., points out (via The Healthy), "This has a variety of effects, from slowing heart rates and decreasing blood pressure to putting us 'at ease' and promoting a positive sense of well-being." Professional herbalist and author Melanie St. Ours adds, "Each of these conditions of the nervous system has a profound effect on our thinking, feeling, heart and lungs, immune system, digestive system, and more."

The effect of real, deep relaxation on the body is profound. Getting the levels of the stress chemicals cortisol and adrenaline back to normal means that not only will you feel more relaxed, but you're likely to sleep better, feel more positive, have increased energy, lower blood pressure, focus better, and possibly even lose weight. That seems well worth making time for the 10 to 20 minutes, twice per day, of relaxation that Dr. Benson recommends.

For a quick way to enter into relaxation, Dr. Benson recommends sitting in a relaxed position, closing your eyes, and repeating a word or sound as you breathe. When (not if) you lose focus, just refocus on the repetition. There are other ways, too. Anything repetitive — like knitting, playing an instrument, or even jogging — can produce the same effect. As Dr. Benson notes, "Anything that breaks the train of everyday thought will evoke this physiological state."