When you’re under stress, your body reacts by releasing hormones that produce the “fight-or-flight” response. Your heart rate and breathing rate go up and blood vessels narrow (restricting the flow of blood). Occasional stress is a normal coping mechanism. But over the long-term, stress may contribute to or worsen a range of health problems including digestive disorders, headaches, sleep disorders, and other symptoms. In contrast to the stress response, the relaxation response slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and decreases oxygen consumption and levels of stress hormones. In theory, voluntarily creating the relaxation response through regular use of relaxation techniques could counteract the negative effects of stress.
Relaxation techniques are generally safe, but there is limited evidence of usefulness for specific health conditions. Research is under way to find out more about relaxation and health outcomes.
Relaxation techniques include a number of practices such as progressive relaxation, guided imagery, biofeedback, self-hypnosis, and deep breathing exercises. The goal is similar in all: to consciously produce the body's natural relaxation response, characterized by slower breathing, lower blood pressure, and a feeling of calm and well-being.
Relaxation techniques often combine breathing and focused attention to calm the mind and the body. These techniques may be most effective when practiced regularly and combined with good nutrition, regular exercise, and a strong social support system.
Most relaxation techniques can be self-taught and self-administered. Most methods require only brief instruction from a book or experienced practitioner before they can be done without assistance.
Do not use relaxation techniques as a replacement for conventional care or to postpone seeing a doctor about a medical problem. Talk to your health care providers if you are considering using a relaxation technique for a particular health condition. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.