These days, everybody seems to want to get a buzz, to get pumped up on something. Probably that's because when we get into a high-energy state, we can cope better with the thousands of unnatural stimuli that bombard us while, for example, navigating the primeval dangers of the morning commute. But this gets old, doesn't it? It's hard to maintain that energy level, and if we're not careful we can burn out, mentally or physically. Relaxation is the antidote. Human physiology tells us that without frequent periods of it, we get sick. The body's level of activation is controlled by two separate nervous subsystems: the sympathetic, which gears us up, and the parasympathetic, which calms us down. We tend to be good at activating the first, but more clumsy with self-managing the second. The parasympathetic system can be activated by things like meditation and prayer, and certainly by drugs like alcohol. But many people are turned off by formal meditation, which often is accompanied by goofy rituals; and by prayer, which brings up bad childhood memories sometimes; and by drugs, which can become habit-forming and destructive. Fortunately, the reason that prayer and meditation work so well is that they trigger a natural reflex in the body that you can use without the fancy accessories. Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard wrote about it in the 1960s, calling it the "relaxation response." Just like the body can go into "fight or flight" mode relatively easily, so too it can relax. All we need is the right circumstances. The result is a calmer state of mind, lowered blood pressure and heart rate, and less muscle tension. Going into this state for 10 or 20 minutes once a day can give you a baseline from which you can propel yourself more effectively into the energetic states you might need to get through your job or other life situations. With relaxation, you can recover. Your parasympathetic system can help you heal from the stress, and fight disease on your own. According to Benson, the two key parts of eliciting the response are: 1) Repetition of a word, sounds, phrase, prayer or physical activity, and 2) "Passively disregarding" everyday thoughts that come to mind. When these come up, just return your mind to the repetition.
The Mind Body Medical Institute, which Benson runs, offers a simple set of steps to do this -- basically a non-religious form of sitting meditation. See www.mbmi.org.
You probably have had a similar experience in the past, while dancing, running, listening to music, or just staring the rain or the grass in your back yard. There's nothing magical about it: it's just a reflex that we don't use much in the modern USA. "Americans know how to work," a German surgical resident told me once, "but they don't know how to live."
The Mind Body Medical Institute has found that patients who regularly relax have fewer doctor visits, lowered blood pressure, fewer complications after heart surgery, better sleep patterns, higher conception rates in the case of infertility, and better school performance. What's important is not just understanding that this relaxation state is available, but actively practicing it on a daily basis, as a way to calm yourself, and let your body and mind heal from the stresses of the day.
This isn't to say that stress is all bad. In fact, without any stress, people tend not to do well. We need challenges to be the most productive and happy.
However, as with any substance, the dose makes the poison, and too much stress becomes toxic. It begins to affect our ability to cope with everyday events and to have good relationships with other people.
This problem can be totally overlooked in children. Educational systems and parents are intent on teaching children to stay alert, and to think. However, we don't spend much time on teaching our children to calm down, and we seem to spend absolutely no time teaching them to stop thinking.
And as we learn to relax a bit, we can find that it doesn't take so much effort to develop the buzz, or to put us into the zone.