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From Stress Reaction to Relaxation Response
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 04/10/2017

Stressfree One of the seemingly inescapable realities of corrections work is that it is “stressful.” What do we mean by this word “stress” that we use so often when describing this profession?

To explain this in an overly simplified way, I will get a little technical about how we are “wired,” briefly describing functions of one of our two nervous systems—the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). (The other one is the Central Nervous System, which involves voluntary behavior.) When you read “autonomic” think “automatic.” The ANS operates outside of our conscious volition. It hums away in the background, regulating essential body functions all on its own, such as breathing, heart rate, body temperature, gland secretion, digestion, and elimination processes.

The ANS is composed of two “opposing” parts (both with long names)—the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). These two balance each other out. When one is “on,” the other is “off.” There can be only one driver in the driver’s seat.

The PNS functions include the maintenance of homeostasis (balance) and a calm state, with its primary focus being to help the body run normally, relax, rest and digest. This can aid repairs and recovery of body organs and tissues.

The overall purpose of SNS, on the other hand, is to mobilize the body’s resources to help fight threatening situations or flee from them. SNS functions include increasing heart rate, blood flow, and the release of glucose from the liver into the blood, and releasing adrenaline. When the SNS is activated, it shuts down operations in the body not critical to immediate survival—such as digestion.

The body operates optimally and is likeliest to remain the healthiest when the PNS is the norm, with occasional activation of the SNS in reaction to infrequent demands placed on the organism.

If we used an analogy from the corrections workplace, the PNS is “on” when everything is running smoothly and routinely. The SNS kicks in when there is an emergency, a critical incident, and staff respond according to protocol to neutralize a danger and contain the situation.

So, under normal circumstances, we’d expect to be in PNS mode more often than not. The catch, however, is that, for us humans, the SNS does not distinguish between threats or demands that are real versus perceived (but not real, as when—in the absence of evidence—we are convinced that someone did something negative to us on purpose). Also, the SNS does not distinguish between threats or demands that are physical (such as lack of sleep, or being physically assaulted), and those that are psychological (such as someone important to us disliking us, or suspecting that our mate is unfaithful). Similarly, the SNS does not distinguish between actual threats or demands and ones we imagine that they may occur in the future. So, the “hot button” of our SNS gets pushed in a wide variety of situations. If this happens too often, our SNS can get so hyper-sensitized, it is like is gets stuck on “on.” Being sleep deprived, dealing with time pressure or deadlines, driving ourselves non-stop to keep working through sheer willpower or by consuming large quantities of caffeine, taking offense at how someone spoke to us, or anticipating problems down the road—all these, and many more, kick our SNS in gear—the stress reaction—in exactly the same way, causing (among other emotional states), hurrying, worrying, frustration, anger, and sadness/discouragement/depression. The stress reaction also affects heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar release, digestion, sleep, muscle tension, and much, much more, with the end result possibly becoming ill health.

You may have already recognized stressors inherent to corrections work that keep the SNS dominant for long periods of time (thus shutting down the PNS relaxation response, since only one of the two can be “on the throne” at a time). You know these work conditions only too well. I’ll mention a few—just for the record. Sleep deprivation and physical fatigue or exhaustion due to shift work, overtime, multi-tasking, dealing with noise and distractions. Inability to sleep well when one is finally in bed, due to the SNS activation (vicious cycle). Confrontations due to interpersonal conflict. Uses of force. Being on the receiving end of threats. Sustaining or inflicting physical harm—fighting. Consumption of large amounts of caffeine. For corrections and other public safety staff, SNS dominance becomes a way of life. You remain vigilant, on guard, ready to take action over very extended periods of time.

Even on your time off many of you can’t fully relax because you anticipate getting a phone call from your institution / office, and you habitually and continually scan the environment for threats. Relaxation and rest are a rarity or are once in a while artificially induced (as through the consumption of alcohol). Physical exercise brings a sense of unwinding, but intense working out activates the SNS also, contributing to the problem.

And it’s not only the “fight or flight” readiness that’s unhealthy. Even when you are not “on guard,” you may be forcing yourself to stay “on” during your off time through more caffeine consumption and the overstimulation of technology—being on social media, on the computer, or playing video games for way too long—not unplugging enough.

The bottom line is that the ongoing SNS activation/dominance over time, and insufficient PNS activation (time relaxing), rarely or infrequently unwinding, sooner or later takes its toll, becoming the source of poor health.

What can be done to counter this epidemic of overstimulation and taxing of our bodies? How can we give our PNS breathing room, so to speak, by creating enough calm time, islands of refuge in the midst of the ocean of demands imposed on us by ourselves or others? Since the two branches of the ANS oppose each other and only one can be in charge at a time, the solution may revolve around inducing in the body the opposite of the stress reaction of the SNS—that is, to elicit the PNS-based RELAXATION RESPONSE.

The Relaxation Response was first discussed in 1976 by Herbert Benson, MD, in his book by the same name. In it, he described his method for inducing that response in the body, and its health benefits—such as lower blood pressure.

Here are some basic steps to achieve that, based on breathing practices. Why use breathing? Our breath is ever-present, rhythmic, and easily observable, so it can be focused on to induce relaxation. There are innumerable variations to what is presented below, and more will be described at a later time. In this article I offer a simple, basic presentation of essential elements required to activate the PNS.

Sit down on a chair or on a cushion on the floor in a room where there are no distractions. Turn your phone off. Keep your feet on the floor and your back straight. You can close your eyes or keep them open. Let your shoulders fall naturally, and keep your hands relaxed and cupped on your lap. Take 2-3 deep breaths—in and out—and settle in. Run a mental scan through your body, relaxing muscle groups as much as you can—letting them be soft, warm and heavy. If you don’t feel them relax, just observe how they feel.

Bring your focus to the here and now by observing the one constant—your breath. Just observe your breath as it happens naturally, without being forced—in and out. And in and out. And in and out. Notice where you feel your breath the most—is it the cool and warm air in your nostrils? Your chest expanding and contracting? Your abdomen rising and falling? Don’t try to fix anything, do anything, or change anything about your breathing. As much as you can, moment by moment, watch your breath as it happens automatically, naturally—inhaling and exhaling.

As you do that, you’ll notice that your mind has this persistent habit of wandering off. Observe thoughts popping up here and there. Watch that happen with a friendly curiosity, and, without judgment or self-criticism, gently bring your focus back to your breath. Sometimes it helps to think of a couple of syllables or words as you inhale and exhale, such as, in-out; or one-two, one-two, as you inhale and exhale. Our mind is like a rambunctious, hyperactive puppy that darts and plays, tumbles and rolls. Through the practice described here, we keep it on a leash for a time period, asking it to “sit, stay” and focus on one thing—our breath—for a bit.

So, do that for five minutes. At first it may feel like this is a very long time to be still, not doing anything other than breathing and bringing your attention back to your breath when you realize it has wandered off, but you’ll see that the time goes by fast. Set your phone alarm to a soft sound and have it alert you when the time is up. When the time ends, gently move your fingers and wiggle your toes, and come back to your normal activities in the room.

As you continue with this practice, build it up to ten minutes, and later on stretch it to fifteen minutes. Perhaps add some more time, making it twenty minutes, then half an hour at a time. As much as possible, do this daily or several times per week, as benefits accumulate over time. The goal is to learn to focus your attention on the present moment in a way that does not involve laboring or doing anything outside of this quiet observation of your breath rising and falling. This helps your body enter into recovery mode, like an athlete needs to take breaks from grueling workouts.

Since Benson’s work, Western research literature has exploded with studies and practices from a variety of traditions of what is now more commonly called meditation or “mindfulness.” The key point of them all seems to be PAUSING, turning off the “on” (do / fix / change / fight / flee) mode, and slowing down long enough to remain aware of the immediate present for a time period. Research abounds on the beneficial effects of mindfulness practices on brain functioning (such as release of “feel good” chemicals), reduced inflammation, improved digestion, pain reduction, as well as blood pressure reduction. This is not surprising, as staying in the present interferes with the constant chatter in our minds about the past (regrets, resentments, sadness), or about the future (worry, fears, anxiety, anger), and reduces the SNS tendency to overreact by mobilizing the body’s resources to deal with even trivial threats or demands.

In future issues of the Correctional Oasis we will feature some of these findings, alternatives for inducing the relaxation response, and online resources. Here, however, the emphasis is on HOW TO get to that good place in one very simple way—the sweet spot of experiencing, relishing and benefiting from the relaxation response.

This article as been reprinted with permission from the February 2017 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Editor's note: Caterina Spinaris is the Executive Director at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She continues to contribute to the field of corrections staff well-being individually and organizationally, in particularly regarding issues of traumatic stress due to exposure to violence, injury, death on the job, and also issues of organizational climate improvement.

Visit the Caterina Spinaris page

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