Stress & Recovery
by John Jacobs, Ph.D., Stress Management Specialist
Stress Management in Drug & Alcohol Rehabilitation
Throughout life, and day to day, we experience stress and stressors. Not all stress is bad. Some stress is helpful, such as when we need to get something done for work, or are in a competitive activity (e.g., sports). It’s helpful to feel a bit of pressure for optimal performance and efficiency. The problem is when stress becomes too much, and isn’t cleansed – so to speak – from our mind and body. Stress that is not managed, i.e., not properly counteracted, can become chronic and lead to dysfunction in mind, body, behavior, and out-and-out disease.
A simple definition of stress that I like which has been put forth is: “Stress occurs when pressure exceeds your perceived ability to cope.”
Those studying stress and its effects name four sources of stress:
* Physiological, e.g., poor nutrition
* Environmental, e.g., noise pollution
* Social, e.g., interpersonal conflicts
* Cognitive, e.g., negative thinking patterns that induce anxiety.
There’s something called the fight-or-flight response, that’s part of the overall stress response, which I’ll discuss next. It’s relevant to the type of stress management that’s discussed in this article. The fight-or-flight response refers to the biochemical and physiological changes that occur in the body as an alarm response to stressors (real or imagined), such as when one perceives they don’t have the resources to cope with the stressor, or it’s just generally perceived as a threat to one’s well-being.
The nature of the response includes:
* an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, metabolism, and blood pressure
* hands and feet can become cold due to blood being directed away from extremities into the larger muscles used for fighting or running
* pupils dilate to sharpen vision
* hearing can become more acute
* one can get butterflies in stomach, and the diaphragm and anus lock can lock.
When the stressor is no longer perceived as a threat, a system kicks in and counteracts the fight-or-flight response, and metabolism, heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure return to normal levels. That’s the way it should be. However, chronic stress and disease occurs when a stressor (or stressors) accumulates over a length of time (without recuperation), with the fight-or-flight remaining activated to some degree. As one author put it,
“We get stuck in the fight-or-flight condition…. Our engines are constantly idling in a perpetual low-level ‘fight or flight’ state of being” (Davis, 2000).
Eventually, this ‘constant idling’ wears us down, depletes our energy, zaps our vital force, and can lead to major psychological mental and physical illnesses.
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The Relaxation Response / Meditation in Addiction Recovery
There’s also something called ‘the relaxation response’:
“The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and the opposite of the fight or flight response.” – Herbert Benson, MD
The relaxation response is characterized by a lower heart rate, a slower brain wave pattern (indicative of a relaxed state), lowered blood pressure, decreased oxygen consumption—all characteristics of decreased sympathetic nervous system activity. The ‘sympathetic nervous system’ is that part of the nervous system that is innervated and activated during stress.
A major technique for managing stress is eliciting the relaxation response. Now, what Harvard researcher Benson did, and to his credit, was to take the ancient Eastern practice of basic meditation, put it into a Western context, and use it for health and medical purposes.
The technique for eliciting the relaxation response is what’s called a self-regulation technique for managing stress. If it’s practiced frequently, e.g., daily, it can counteract that perpetually idling fight-or-flight response mentioned earlier. Its major component, concentration on – and awareness of – the breath, can intercept the fight-or flight response in its earlier stages: When the fight-or-flight response occurs, breathing rate accelerates. There’s an involuntary shift in the breathing pattern to one of increased rate. Breathing is usually involuntary (we do it without thought or awareness of it); but we can also alter it willfully, by simply concentrating on it, focusing awareness on it. When we do this, without trying to regulate it, it naturally slows down.
So, in practical terms, if you’re feeling too stressed, you can kick in a more relaxed state by focusing on your breathing, which will calm it down. The slowed and calmed breathing will in turn have a positive affect on your nervous system, calming it down.
Eliciting the relaxation response daily, i.e., practicing meditation daily, not only cleanses the body of residual stress, it also creates patterns of mind and body functioning which are optimal for health and well-being, e. g., in terns of diaphragmatic breathing, certain brain wave activity, cognitive processing, and most likely, specific neuronal connections.
Please continue reading about meditation and the use of meditation for drug and alcohol rehabilitation in the article, Meditation & Recovery.
Reference for Citation in Article:
Davis, M., Mckay, M. and Robbins, E. (2000). The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. New Harbinger Publications.