Relax your Body

Relax your Body

Do You Feel Stressed or Tense?

The Practice

Relax your body.


Most people these days feel pretty stressed. Plus often worried or angry about one thing or another, such as finances, their job, the health of a family member, or a relationship on the rocks.

When you get stressed or upset, your body tenses up to fight, flee, or freeze. That’s Mother Nature’s way, and it kept our ancestors alive to pass on their genes.

But today – when people can live 70 or 80 years or more, and when quality of life (not mere survival) is a priority – we pay a high price for daily tension. It leads to health problems like heart disease, poor digestion, backaches and headaches, and hormonal ups and downs. And to psychological problems, including anxiety, irritability, and depression.

The number one way to reduce tension is through relaxation. In fact, studies by Herbert Benson and others have shown that relaxing routinely actually improves the expression of genes that help control the fight-or-flight stress response; somehow the effects of soothing and calming your body sift all the way down to affect tiny atomic units within your molecules of DNA: amazing!

Besides its benefits for physical and mental health, relaxation of course feels great. Just recall how nice it feels to soak in a tub, curl up in bed, or plop on the couch after the dishes are done and the kids put to bed.

Whether you’re stuck in traffic, wading through emails, having a tough conversation, worried about your bills, or frustrated at how little support you get, being able to relax your body at will, even a little bit, is a critically important inner skill.


Sure, do what you can to have your life be less stressful, protect yourself, accept what can’t be changed, and gradually build shock absorbers inside your mind so you become increasingly steady in the face of life’s nuttiness.

  • Meanwhile, this week’s practice is to focus on relaxing your body. To do this, here are some great ways to activate the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and its neural, hormonal, and cardiovascular allies; they calm down the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system:
  • Relax your tongue and jaw; perhaps touch your lips. (PNS fibers, involved with digestion, fill the mouth.)
  • Open your lips slightly. (This can help ease stressful thinking by reducing subvocalizations, the subtle, unconscious movements of the jaw and tongue often associated with mental speech.)
  • Do several long exhalations (even five or ten). (The PNS handles exhalation.)
  • Then, for several minutes, breathe in such a way that your inhalation and exhalation are equally long; perhaps count mentally up to five for each inhalation and exhalation. (This creates smooth and steady changes in your heartrate – an optimal pattern of “heartrate variability” – since the heart speeds up slightly with inhalation and slows down slightly with exhalation).
  • Recall the feeling of being with someone you know cares about you. (Feeling cared about activates the affiliating system inside your brain; besides feeling good, that settles down the fight-flee-freeze avoiding system, and nurtures the happiness-seeking approaching system.)
  • Relax your diaphragm, the muscle underneath your lungs that helps suck air into them; put your hand on the center of your belly, below your rib cage, and try to breathe in a way that pushes your hand half an inch or more away from your backbone. (This is especially good if you’re feeling anxious.)

Try these methods in tense situations; they really work! And you can adapt them for children. Plus the more you use them, the more you will train your body-mind to naturally drop into what Dr. Benson has termed “the relaxation response” – with all of the wonderful health and well-being benefits that will bring to you.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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