Many people receiving mental health care are aware of the flight or fight response. This response prepares the body for danger and, among other things, releases adrenaline and cortisol which instigate a range of physiological responses to assist the body in dealing with a threat. This flight or fight response is activated by a branch of the autonomic nervous system (the system which deals with involuntary or unconscious neural responses) called the sympathetic nervous system. To understand how repeatedly activating the flight or fight response can make this your default way of thinking it helps to imagine your brain as a field of long grass (or a jungle) which is difficult to walk through. When you activate a pathway in the brain you create a path in the difficult terrain. The more you activate a response in the brain and walk down its path, the more the glass is flattened and the easier and faster it is for the brain to take that route. In other words your brain becomes sensitized to that pathway and follows that path even when the threat is no longer ‘real.’ The individual who suffers the distress of the physiological symptoms certainly does not want to feel this way they have inadvertently trained their brain to react this way*. Early intervention in mental health, therefore, is crucial because it can stop the development of unhelpful pathways in the brain
The flight or fight response is talked about extensively by mental health care providers. There is, however, another equally (if not more) important response which is the converse of the flight or fight response which receives little press. The sympathetic nervous system has a sibling called the parasympathetic nervous system. This has an involuntary response called the relaxation response and was first published by Herbert Benson in 1970’s. The relaxation response is the opposite of the flight or fight response and activates relaxation in the body by reducing breathing rate, lowering blood pressure and increasing oxygen to the brain to name but a few. You can intentionally sensitize this pathway in the brain through daily relaxation practice. This practice needs to be regular and consistent and approximately 20 minutes in duration to get the full benefits of the response. Understandably people with mood disorders find relaxation harder as their other ‘negative pathways’ are triggered very easily. Although it may sound like an impossibility at first, it is advised that this sort of practice becomes an integral part of your life, such as cleaning your teeth or eating breakfast, in order to alleviate your mental distress for the the term of your life. If you are skeptical, consider trying it for 21 days as this is the average time taken for the brain to start or break a habit. Remember to be kind to yourself because, even if you do allocate a 20 minute daily slot, you may not be able to relax some days so it is expected that it noticeable benefits will take longer. I know it is easier said than done but being hard on yourself for not being able to relax is counter-productive and not evidence-based. There is, however, evidence that people withe mood disorders will find the practice harder as their other ‘negative pathways’ are sensitized; persevering with this practice deserves a real pat on the back.
If you wish to know more about the relaxation response, please feel free to ask as I have a copy of a book called The Relaxation Revolution written by Herbert Benson 30 years after he first published his findings in a medical journal in the 70’s. This book has a more detailed explanation of the underlying physiology and more advice for exercises to trigger the response. It targets the general public and not just mental health suffers as relaxation is necessary for everyone’s health.
*The notion of making sensitized pathways is the brain doesn’t just apply to the flight or fight response; it applies to many of our thought processes such as automatic thinking styles. If we have laid a nice neat path in the brain by repeatedly telling ourselves we are a failure, for example, the brain will take that ‘easy’ path rather than the alternative path with longer grass where we are compassionate to ourselves.