The New Mini Relaxation Response Technique

© –Holistic Medicine Practitioner-
[Version: 3/Dec/13]

Conventional medicine will tell you that your stress and relaxation responses are produced automatically and it is generally believed to be impossible for us to consciously control our stress and relaxation responses, but this is misleading and not entirely correct because by consciously taking control of and changing a few key components of our body and mind we can indirectly quickly and easily switch off stress responses.  The mini relaxation technique described below is a way of achieving this goal in the shortest time and using just the key essential components necessary. 

Page Contents
How Stress Gets from the Mind to the Body
          The Nervous System Route
          The Hormonal Route
The Nervous and Hormonal Route Behave Differently
How to Switch on a Mini Relaxation Response at Will
The Seven Relaxation Bridges
Tricking the Hypothalamus by Changing One’s Consciousness
Tricking the Hypothalamus by Switching on the Neutral Mind with the Mindfulness
Tricking the Hypothalamus by changing one’s perception
The Mini Relaxation Response Procedure
Developing your Mini Relaxation Skill

How Stress Gets from the Mind to the Body
Just to recap what I’ve explained elsewhere in more detail our stress and relaxation responses originate automatically in the brain and are relayed throughout our body via two separate routes:

The Nervous System Stress Route

Firstly stress and relaxation responses are relayed throughout the body via a network of nerves called the autonomic nervous system or ANS for short. The ANS is not connected directly our conscious thinking brain in the way that the central nervous system is, so for example just by thinking about it we can make our hands and open and close and clench a fist because the central nerves that control the muscles in our wrists are directly under conscious control, but no matter how hard we think about it we cannot directly tell our heart or digestive muscles to squeeze and then relax because they controlled by the ANS and not the central nervous system. The completely separate nature of the central nervous system and the ANS is the standard teaching one receives from all anatomy and physiology textbooks, but I believe it has caused medicine to overlook the fact that with training we can (albeit indirectly) quite efficiently change which side of the autonomic nervous system -the stress side or the relaxation side- is dominant.
Elsewhere I describe how to perform a long deep whole body relaxation to change which side of the autonomic nervous system is dominant here we are going to learn how to do it by just relaxing seven key bridges that are under dual control of both the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. Both the mini relaxation you will learn here and the whole body relaxation you learnt elsewhere give you something different so you should teach yourself both of them.

The Hormonal Stress Route

Secondly there’s the hormonal route (the HPA-axis) where the hypothalamus releases hormone that tells the pituitary to release another hormone (ACTH) that tells the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol which then produces multiple stress affects throughout the body. To switch the HPA axis off we have to change the signals we send from our mind to the hypothalamus. The signals sent from our mind are relatively easy to control at least temporarily; for example when we send stressful signals because we feel threatened by the consequences of being stuck in traffic or delayed train we can deliberately change our thinking and tell ourselves that everything is going to be okay and or make our mind go passive by detaching from our worrying thoughts. Because the hypothalamus can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what we imagine we can trick the hypothalamus by imagining we are in a stress free scenario.  It may surprise you that the hypothalamus/stress response can’t tell the difference between what is really happening outside us and what we imagine is happening outside us, but what we think is happening around us is entirely constructed in our mind based upon the input from our senses, our perceptions, our memories of past events and the unique make up of the parts of our brain that produce stress responses etc. etc. So in a way our perception of what is happening is a kind of imagination and different people will perceive situations differently. Obviously if you smell smoke and not suggesting you want to question your perception that the building you’re in is on fire, but there are many scenarios when we feel threatened but were not really in any danger. Actually learning to challenge your perceptions and change your understanding of the world around you is a different thing to learning the relaxation response; challenging your perceptions of stress is a technique to reduce your stress responses in the first place, the relaxation response on the other hand is learning how to switch stress responses off more quickly after they’ve happened. For stress mastery learn both techniques. 

The Hormonal and the Nervous System Stress Route Work Differently

The HPA axis is either switched on or switched off; it is either active when the hypothalamus receives stress signals or inactive off when hypothalamus is not receiving stress signals. The ANS is different; there are two active sides to the ANS there is a stress response and a relaxation response; in the nervous system relaxation is not just the absence of stress responses, it involves its own distinct physiology in which some parts of the body become more active. For example when we relax our heart may slow down and become less active but the activity in our digestive system will increase. The two sides of the autonomic nervous system oppose each other rather like the opposite ends on of a seesaw as one side rises the other side sinks. When we produce stress responses the stress side or branch of the ANS (the sympathetic nervous system) is dominant; this increases our heart rate and blood pressure and shuts down activity in our digestive and endocrine (glandular) systems diverting blood and glucose to our brain and muscles instead to help us fight or flight from danger.  When we produce a relaxation response the relaxation branch of the ANS (the parasympathetic nervous system) is dominant this increase the activity in the digestive system, the glandular system and internal visceral organs in general; the increased dominance in the parasympathetic nerves also counteracts and switches off the signals from the sympathetic nerves thus it switches of the effects of stress responses throughout the body. With the mini relaxation technique we make the mutually counteracting design of the two sides of the ANS to achieve our goal of switching off unnecessary stress responses. 

Just like on a seesaw if you raise one end above the midpoint even just a little it depresses the opposing side below the midpoint and in the autonomic nervous system this means that if you elevate the activity in the parasympathetic (relaxation) side sufficient to induce even a mini relaxation response it will depress, deactivate and switch off all currently active stress responses; it will for example release the clamping from the intestines stress causes, the clamping from the arteries which raises blood pressure, the elevated heart rate, the elevated breathing rate (tending towards hyperventilation), the elevated cortisol etc etc.
So to reiterate the way the ANS works is whenever one side becomes dominant it counteracts and switches off the activity of the other side and the mini relaxation technique takes advantage of this seesaw effect to switch of unhealthy stress effects. The relaxation you achieve with the mini relaxation response is not as deep as the relaxation you achieve with the full body relaxation lying on your back but nevertheless it is sufficient to counteract and switch off the effects of unwanted stress responses throughout the body and moreover you can do it any time you want to during the day. This breaks up the presence of continuous stress responses which can have damaging health effects. 
With sufficient practice switching on a mini relaxation response can become second nature and as easy as taking a deep breath;initially you will learn how to do it manually and deliberately however eventually you can condition yourself to switch it on semi-automatically in situations that trigger your stress reposes. For more on this see Taking the Relaxation Response out into Everyday Life (under construction).

As mentioned above our brains have not yet evolved to distinguish between real life threatening situations that genuinely require protective physical responses from imaginary threats or even just psychological pressures, what we believe or perceive as reality is in fact constructed in our mind.  There are several tricks and techniques we can employ to change both how we mentally perceive and how our body physically responds to stress which I will discuss elsewhere in these pages and in my forthcoming book The Stress Solution (due 2015). The inability of the brain specifically the hypothalamus to be able to distinguish between real or imaginary threats can work against us by producing inappropriate stress responses, but we can equally turn this inability to our advantage and switch off stress responses by pretending or imagining we are in a safe and nonthreatening situation.  
I believe there is one more important difference between the autonomic nervous system and the HPA axis. It appears that learning the whole body relaxation in the mini relaxation technique primarily teaches you how to control the balance in your autonomic nervous system and that learning meditation techniques like mindfulness primarily teaches you how to switch off stress responses in the HPA axis. I have no direct scientific proof that this is the case but it seems to be so based upon my clinical observations with patients over the years and it makes hypothetical sense because of the connection between the autonomic nervous system and the relaxation bridge muscles. Many years ago when I first started to teach deep relaxation training I primarily focused on learning how to relax the muscles however now I appreciate the importance of simultaneously incorporating techniques to make the mind go passive and neutral.

How to Switch on a Mini Relaxation Response at Will

There are several things we can do to “trick” our system to switch off stress responses:
  • we can manually change our breathing pattern to either a slowed down yoga type breathing or a minimalistic Buteyko type breathing pattern (I’ll discuss which you should choose elsewhere),
  • we can deliberately relax seven key “bridge” muscle groups,
  • we can pretend or imagine that we are in a safe place and everything will work out for the best,
  • we can make our mind temporarily adopt a passive detached attitude (mindfulness).
When all these techniques are simultaneously applied you can quickly switch off stress responses.

I used to suggest you should complete the hundred to day whole body deep relaxation training first and then teach yourself how to do the mini relaxation as a follow-on program; however the latest thinking is that you will achieve a greater or faster change in your brain by learning the two techniques together at the same time.  This combined program consists of doing a 25 minute long deep relaxation every day and five (or more if you want) quick mini relaxations throughout the day for 100 days.

1/ Relaxing the Seven Relaxation Bridges

Above discussed above most muscles in the body are controlled only by either the autonomic nervous system or the central nervous system, the heart muscle for example is controlled by our autonomic nervous system and the muscles in our arms and legs are controlled exclusively by our central nervous system.  There are nine areas in the body however where the muscles are actually under dual control of both the autonomic and central nervous systems. You will already be familiar with the dual control of one of these areas, your breathing muscles. You know that if you are in a very stressful situation, angry or panicked your breathing rate will increase without you even thinking about it but you can choose to override this and calm your breathing. So we can consciously override the stress response sent to your breathing muscles by your autonomic nervous system with our conscious central nervous system.

There are actually nine bridge muscle areas in total but only seven are useful to help us relax:-
  1. The muscles that around our eyes and eyelids.
  2. The chewing muscles in our jaw and our lips.
  3. The muscles in the tongue.
  4. The swallowing muscles in the throat.
  5. Numerous muscles in the hands.
  6. The breathing muscles (diaphragm and intercostals)
  7. Numerous muscles in the feet and ankle area.
  8. Some of the muscles in our bladder that control urination.
  9. Some of the muscles in our bowels that control defecating.
We will only use seven of the above, obviously the latter two –the bladder and bowels- are not useful for our purposes, but they are a good example of this dual control. From an early age we learn to conscious override the signals from the autonomic nervous system not to empty our bowels and bladder anytime they are full, instead we wait for the right place and time. However the autonomic nervous system can override the conscious control causing involuntary evacuation of our bladder and bowel at times of extreme stress. 

These muscle areas can be thought of providing us with bridges between the different nervous systems and by consciously taking (central nervous) control of the bridge muscles we can exert influence over the state of the autonomic nervous system and induce a relaxation response.
The understanding of the anatomy of the dual nervous control of these areas has been well-known for a considerable time, but what has not been appreciated until recently is the amazing therapeutic usefulness of this anatomy. Learning to consciously relax the dual control bridges on command is central to learning how to perform the mini relaxation response.
Sometimes there are situations where you won’t use all seven bridges, for example I often switch on a mini relaxation response while typing at the computer and therefore I’m not able to relax the muscles in my hands but it still makes a difference to my stress levels just isolating and relaxing the other six relaxation bridges. Similarly I regularly switch on a mini relaxation response when I’m standing in a queue, but in this case I can’t properly relax the muscles in my ankles and feet.  Actually there’s only one situation where I find it virtually impossible to switch on any noticeable relaxation effect and that is when I’m speaking.  In order to speak we have to apply controlled tension to our tongue, throat and breathing muscles and not being able to relax these relaxation bridges, especially the breathing muscles basically prevents one from activating a mini relaxation response. I often however switch on a mini relaxation response within a conversation when I’m listening.

2/ Tricking the Hypothalamus by Changing One’s Consciousness

In addition to relaxing the seven bridges we can deliberately change our state of consciousness in two principal ways:

2 a/ Tricking the Hypothalamus by Switching on the Neutral Mind with Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves “stepping back”, detaching and passively observing one’s own thoughts as they pass through one’s mind.  When we enter into a state of mindfulness our mind becomes emotionally neutral and passive this stops our mind sending stress response signals to the hypothalamus. Studies have shown that three months of practicing mindfulness-based relaxation changes the physical structure of the brain, increasing the amount of grey matter in parts of the brain that help us to let go and relax and diminishes the size of the amygdala. The amygdala plays a central role in triggering stress responses and when we have an over developed amygdala we overproduce stress responses. Combatting excessive stress responses form the amygdala is one of the corner stones of my stress solution program see amygdala reprogramming (under construction). To achieve these impressive detectable changes in the brain participants underwent the daily practice of a 25 minute mindfulness-based relaxation meditation and several times per day they also momentarily switched into a state of mindfulness for a just minute or so.

2 b/ Tricking the Hypothalamus by Changing One’s Perception

In addition to practicing mindfulness we can pretend or imagine that we are in a safe place and that whatever it is that is causing us to feel stressed will work out for the best, as already mentioned the hypothalamus can’t tell the difference between these pretend or imaginary thoughts and the other stressful thoughts or perceptions we have, so this stops stress responses being sent to the hypothalamus.
If you not are familiar and practiced with meditation you may be forgiven for thinking that it is hard to change your state of mind at all let alone during the middle of everyday activities but once you have gained sufficient practice at switching into a meditative “neutral-mind” state and reframing how you perceive sources of stress you’ll be surprised at how quickly you are able to do it. There are many suitable moments throughout the day when we can practice the mini relaxation for example sitting on a train or train platform, while standing in a queue or any other situation where you are waiting, while watching television, listening to music etc etc. For some people becoming proficient at quickly switching the mind into a neutral state of mindfulness may involve some additional training, perhaps spending several weeks or months of daily practice of mindfulness meditation for 10 to 20 minutes a day, switching off stress responses is not as simple as pushing a button, it requires mastering an advanced ability or skill and this takes time.

The Mini Relaxation Technique Procedure

To switch on a mini relaxation response you have to do three things simultaneously:

Relax the seven bridge muscles, this is a new technique not widely taught at this point.
2 Temporarily change your perception of your stresses by imagining (pretending) you are in a safe place and all imagining your sources of stress will work out OK.
3 Temporarily switching into a neutral and passive state of mind by practicing mindfulness.

To master this technique I recommend starting by doing a few dedicated 5-15 minute sessions until you get the hang of it.  Instead of lying down will you sit upright and activate your parasympathetic nervous system by relaxing just a few key muscles and slowing down your breathing.
I can email you a free MP3 recording which will guide you through the mini relaxation procedure to get you started.

The Method

At a time when you are not going to be speaking for several minutes:
  • Inhale fairly deeply then very slowly exhale.
  • As you slowly exhale bring some of your attention into your eye area and soften all the tension in your eye area, one way to do this is to imagine something in your mind brought a very slight smile to your face, just enough to release all tension and frowning from the eye area i.e. smile with your eyes.  
  • Continue inhaling deeply and very slowly exhaling and with each breath deepen the relaxation around your eyes, then soften and relax your mouth area (your lips and jaw muscles), and then yourtongue.  It may help to couple the relaxing and letting go sensation with the breathing so that every time you slowly exhale you sink into a more relaxed condition.
  • Repeat this now relaxing the throat, taking control of the muscles that normally make you swallow and relaxing them so that you don’t swallow. (It’s okay if you quickly swallow as you begin to relax the throat, but focus on controlling the muscles so they do the opposite to swallowing).
  • Now if it helps you can carry on with the long slow exhalations or alternatively you can begin to relax the breathing and just let it go so that it naturally calms right down, you may find it naturally calms down to a very diminished and diminutive breathing pattern.
  • Now feel your hands and make them go completely loose and limp. If it helps you can imagine that you were holding a pen or a phone and you relax your hands so much that whatever you were holding just slips out of your hand.
  • Now feel your feet and make them go completely loose and limp.
  • Now as you continue to keep the seven bridges relaxed change the stress signals your mind is sending to the hypothalamus by: firstly imagining that whatever stresses you currently have in your life are role going to work out okay and secondly also stepping back and detaching from your thoughts, just watch yourself thinking so that your mind becomes very still. 
Some people prefer to perform the mental tricks at the beginning perhaps as they take their first slow and relaxed breaths, it’s really up to you to find out what works best.

N.B.: There’s no specific correct order to the different mini relaxation components in that is the right way for everybody and you should find for yourself which part seems to be the best place to start or the key component which unlocks your relaxation response. For example for many people relaxing and slowing the breathing is the quickest and most direct way to start to switch off stress and switch on relaxation, however for other people it may be relaxing the eyes or the mouth and jaw area; play around with the technique looking for the key component that seems to unlock your relaxation response and in future start relaxing this bit first and then work through the other components.
As I’ve said elsewhere there are a few people that find long slow deep breathing actually increases feelings of stress and anxiety, if this is the case for you stop and substitute the very minimal, diminutive Buteyko style breathing and use this style of breathing instead you’ll find that it actually calms down anxiety.
With practice as you become more skilled you’ll be able to do all the other parts of the mini relaxation except the hands while you continue tapping away on your computer keyboard, or you can do everything except the feet and switch on a mini relaxation response while standing up.

I can email you a free MP3 instructional recording to guide you through the mini relaxation technique, ask for the Basic Mini Relaxation Response mp3 [UNDER DEVELOPMENT]

Developing your Mini Relaxation Skill

In the beginning it may take you several minutes to switch on a mini relaxation response in everyday situations, but with practice you’ll be able to do it in less and less time so that eventually you will be able to switch it on almost instantly and effortlessly within just a few breaths. 
Once you're confident that you can quickly and easily achieve a feeling of relaxation in your body you can give up doing a dedicated training session and simply incorporate the technique into everyday life situations. 
When you become proficient at quickly and effortlessly switching on a mini relaxation response several times a day as you go about your daily activities you have acquired a very healthy new skill, and in terms of self-mastery of your stress responses. All you have to do now is continue practicing mini sessions several times per day when you get the opportunity such as working at the computer, watching television reading etc. and this should be sufficient to prevent stress from negatively affecting your health; that’s not to say that you would not gain further benefit by the regular daily practice of meditation.
If you pay attention to your body (even monitoring your pulse rate) you can start to notice the shift in your body when you become stressed and train or condition yourself to quickly switch stress of again with just a few commands from your mind.

See Taking the Relaxation Response Out into Every Day Life (UNDER CONSTRUCTION)
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Hi my name is Peter Smith I specialise in treating and coaching people how to live well with mental health problems, digestive health problems/IBS, sleep problems and type II diabetes using natural therapies.
I used these techniques to overcome and live well with my own bipolar disorder and IBS. I've been in practice as a natural medicine practitioner since 1988.

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