We often hear about the fight or flight system but the thing we less frequently hear about is the relaxation system. Yes! The body has a system for relaxing! The relaxation system is also called the parasympathetic nervous system. And the same way that fight or flight plays a crucial role in the body, the relaxation also plays an important role.
The relaxation system is when our body gets to relax and recover. When we utilize this system our body is able to complete crucial body functions and even heal itself! The body is such a cool thing! We just often get in the way of what it does best.
Here we start to see this amazing intersect between mind and body. When we are continually functioning from our fight or flight system and not access our relaxation system enough to recover from the stress it can impact our bodies in some very real ways. A body under constant stress can experience adrenaline fatigue, high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, acid reflux, IBS, headaches, obesity and lowered immune system.
There was a study done from 1995-1997 that showed this link between mental health and physical health really well. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) is a landmark study that showed the long-term impact of negative experiences in childhood. The study found that the more adverse experiences a person had in childhood led to an increased likelihood of a number of negative health outcomes including heart disease, diabetes, and early death. The study also found an increased risk in substance abuse, suicide attempts, and risky sexual behavior. Research also shows that counseling decreases the likelihood of these long-term negative impacts.
So why do I tell you all of this? Often in our society we see self-care or time for relaxation as an indulgence that many of us don’t have time for. But here we see that this is NOT a matter of self -indulgence; this is a matter of living a long and healthy life. Spending time tapping into the relaxation system is exactly what our body needs to recover from stress and function on an optimal level.
There are a few other benefits to spending time tapping into the relaxation system. When we are in our parasympathetic nervous system we are using our frontal lobe, which is the part of our brain that makes us human. This is the part of the brain where we think ahead, plan for the future, and make wise choices. (Fun fact: It’s also the part of the brain we use when we think about thinking, also known as metacognition.) So if you want to live a long, healthy, happy life and make wise choices then finding time for relaxation is NOT A LUXURY but rather a MUST.
Theresa Leskowat MS LPC is owner and founder of Clear Vista Counseling. Theresa is a mental health therapist in Charlotte, NC. Theresa is passionate about helping her clients learn how to turn the relaxation response into a habit and find balance in their lives.