The Power of Relaxation
By Sveti Williams (Sleep Coach)
Stress & Sleep
Do you find yourself lying awake at night with your mind full and restless? Do you worry about the important things in the future, or work, family, relationships, health or finances? And then you realise that the worst thing happens, you’re starting to feel anxious about whether you’ll ever actually fall asleep because all of that thinking. If this sounds familiar, you’re definitely not alone.
These days in our busy society, we get that busy during the day that we have no time to pause what we’re doing and think, so when we lie in bed it is our only time of the 24-hour period to think and to get in touch with our thoughts. Once we lie in bed we begin to think and that thinking can lead to worrying as well. Which leads to sleeplessness.
Practicing relaxation is one of the most crucial things you can do while you’re in bed. The majority of people, when asked the reason for why they cannot sleep, say that it is due to an overactive mind. A lesser portion say that it is due to worry and stress. People, who have a racing mind at night, say that they tend to have random thoughts, thinking about the future, past, relationship problems, work, money, family and friends.
Unfortunately, nowadays we are exposed to a lot of stress daily. Stress is a basic part of life, but only if it is in small amounts. Experiencing some amount of stress in our lives is basically made for our protection and it’s adaptive. When we are exposed to stress, our minds and our bodies are preparing for difficult challenges to react appropriately in the time of crisis. A small amount of stress is actually necessary to help us perform at our best.
Types of stress
Without stress, life would be dull and boring, so stress adds variety and challenge and opportunity to our life. However, these days we are exposed to constant stress. As our levels of stress are dramatically high and are extended for long periods of time, it is not serving us in any beneficial way. We are exposed to a lot of different types of stress. There are environmental factors, such as excessive noise, problems with people or your neighbours or at work, or bad weather, or natural disasters, traffic, pollution, and all kinds of stress like that.
Then we are also exposed to social stress factors, such as conflicts with family, loss of a loved one, balancing work and home, demands of time and attention, deadlines, group projects, financial problems, deadlines at work or universities, bills, etc. We are also exposed to physiological factors, such as illnesses, accidents, a sedentary lifestyle, which gives us a lack of exercise, poor diet, lack of nutrition, exposure to a lot of alcohol, drugs and smoking, muscle tension, headaches, upset stomachs, etc.
On top of all that we are also exposed to the stress of our thoughts, such as being perfectionistic, expecting too much from yourself or expecting too much from others, or being competitive, making decisions, expectations of different events, expecting life to be problem-free and when it’s not, we stress a lot and we overthink. Making those assumptions can be very stressful for us. These days we are exposed to a lot of continuous stress, which can seriously affect our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
How Stress Affects Our Wellbeing
Being exposed to a lot of stress interferes with our normal day to day activities, including our sleep, diminishes our self-esteem, has a negative effect on our personal and work relationships and decreases work performance and academic effectiveness. Stress can also lead to a lot of psychological issues as well, such as low self-esteem, self-blame, self-doubt and feeling burnt out, which can result in becoming clinically anxious or depressed.
People even stress out when they think about relaxation. The reason people stress about having relaxation time is just that it is another thing they need to think about. A lot of thinking and overthinking creates a high level of anxiety in the body and mind and when people have a lot of anxiety, this can trigger different chemical processes in the body. Recent studies revealed that anxiety disorders increase the risk of several aging-related conditions, which might be due to accelerated aging at the cellular and molecular level. However, the good news is that this cellular aging is reversible once the anxiety disorder is diminished.
A large number of people feel guilty about taking time to relax and after they’ve done all their must-dos for the day, they simply feel that they have no time for relaxation. A lot of people also mistake relaxation for laziness, so when we are lazy, we are inactive. We have no inclination to work. We feel lethargic and dull.
Whereas, when we practice relaxation we’re only taking a rest, so we feel vigorous, strong and full of vitality. When we take time to relax, it allows us to accomplish wonderful work gracefully in a minimum space of time. When we don’t take time for relaxation, we don’t allow our body to rejuvenate and restore and to rest. When we don’t allow our body to relax on a regular basis, the body and the mind also become angry. We experience those emotions that are actions of anger, worries and fear and when we do that on a regular basis, the repeating action of doing so becomes a habit, which is formed in the mind. If we do it frequently, the worrying habit is developed and when that happens, we’re experiencing anger or fear and it drains our vitality and our energy and makes us ill.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on. We all know of the presence of the nervous system in the body, but what exactly is the nervous system? The nervous system is a cluster of neurons that communicate with each other and with parts of the body via electrical impulses and neurotransmitters. This cluster of the neurons is very complex and the way it communicates between the body is quite complex. The nervous system is made up of the brain, the spinal cord, sensory organs and all of the nerves that connect these organs with the rest of the body. The nervous system has four main divisions: the central nervous system, cranial nervous system, peripheral nervous system and autonomic nervous system. Here we will be looking into the autonomic nervous system in more detail and how this affects our bodily functions.
Autonomic nerves go from the spinal cord to the lungs, heart, stomach, intestines, bladder and sex organs. This autonomic nervous system supplies the internal organs, including the blood vessels, stomach, intestines, liver, kidney, bladder, genitals, lungs, pupils, heart, and sweat, salivary and digestive glands. The autonomic nervous system has two main divisions, sympathetic and parasympathetic. These two branches have opposite effects on the body. When the autonomic nervous system receives information about the body from the external environment, it responds by stimulating body processes, usually through the sympathetic division, or inhibiting them, usually through the parasympathetic division.
To describe this in simple terms, the sympathetic nervous system helps us deal with the stressful situation by initiating a fight or flight reaction. After the danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, decreasing the heartbeat and relaxing the blood vessels, which relaxes our body. In healthy people, these two branches of the autonomic nervous system, maintain balance and homeostasis in the body, so every action is followed by relaxation. Due to hectic lifestyles these days, unfortunately, people’s autonomic nervous system stays on guard, not allowing them to relax and not allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to take over in order to allow that process of relaxation. This is how the illnesses and diseases begin when this situation becomes chronic. Let’s look closely at what exactly the autonomic nervous system processes in the body.
Firstly, it regulates the blood pressure, heart and breathing rate, body temperature, digestion, metabolism, the balance of water and electrolytes, the production of bodily fluids, such as saliva, sweat and tears, urination, defecation and sexual responses. These two branches work hand in hand together, they balance each other and have opposite effects on each other’s function. Due to being under constant stress, the sympathetic nervous system takes over and inhibits the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system, which affects not only our body, but also our mind in the way that when our brain sends stresses, it can lead to a reaction of further emotional and mental damage.
This is how a lot of problems manifest in the form of headaches and muscle tension, they directly relate to the bodily responses that accompany stress. Indeed, our bodies are designed to withstand occasional extreme stresses so we can survive under a lot of pressure. When we are exposed to constant stress, our body starts to develop the physical symptoms of diseases. Often, without even the physical diagnosis of the diseases, we just begin to have a number of those symptoms and those symptoms can later develop into stress-related illnesses. For example, people who experience a lot of stress for a long period of time, or large amounts of stress frequently, have a high risk of cardiovascular disease. This is very common in people who tend to be excessively competitive, impatient and hostile and who move and talk quickly.
The Benefits of Relaxation
The good news is that if relaxation is implemented early, the effects of stress on the body could well be reversed. Once people get into the relaxation zone, the benefits are incredible. Meditation, as a form of relaxation, is also known to have a significant effect on immune cells and the research also shows that relaxation exercises may burst natural killer cells in the elderly, leading to increased resistance to tumours and viruses. Relaxation also positively affects mental health and allows people who meditate to reduce their psychological distress, depression and anxiety. Relaxation via meditation, when done twice a day, has been shown to improve the symptoms of IBS, such as bloating, belching, diarrhoea and constipation, significantly in those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Relaxation and meditation are both very powerful states of the body and mind. Please don’t feel guilty for allowing yourself to relax. Relaxing isn’t a form of wasting time, it’s actually allowing your body to perform better and rejuvenate after hard work.
“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” –Old Zen saying
“Good night – may you fall asleep in the arms of a dream, so beautiful, you’ll cry when you awake.” –Michael Faudet
For further information and tips for getting a great night’s sleep from Sveti, visit her website for a free sleep assessment.
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