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This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Actually Relax

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If you think you thrive on stress—think again. Here’s what happens to your body when you reach that sublime state of calm.

Say “aaaahhh”

Pretty young woman relaxing in the whirlpool bathtubGoran Bogicevic/Shutterstock

True relaxation requires a shift from a stress-based outlook of fight or flight to one that Melanie St. Ours, a professional herbalist and author of The Simple Guide to Natural Health, describes as “rest and digest.” “Each of these conditions of the nervous system has a profound effect on our thinking, feeling, heart and lungs, immune system, digestive system, and more.” Need better sleep? Try these 10 relaxation techniques that can really help you wind down.

Your levels of a harmful hormone decline

Young African woman sitting on her living sofa at home drinking a cup of coffee and relaxingFlamingo Images/Shutterstock

“Relaxation can help reduce the stress hormone known as cortisol,” says fitness expert Matt Weik, owner of Weik Fitness in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. “The job of cortisol is to help your body deal with various stressful situations. When cortisol levels remain elevated for a long period of time, it can cause high blood pressure. High levels of cortisol can disrupt sleep cycles, create negative mood patterns, zap your energy, and even cause you to store body fat. When you relax and cortisol levels have a chance to normalize, you have a better chance to minimize the negative effects and improve your overall health and well-being.”

Your autopilot goes off high alert

listening relaxing music at home, relaxed man in headphones sitting in deck chair in modern bright interiorDitty_about_summer/Shutterstock

Ongoing scientific research is exploring more of relaxation’s benefits; James Webb, MD, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, points to some facts about our physiological well-being that are already quite clear. “Relaxation generally uses our conscious mind and somatic nervous system to achieve subconscious changes in the autonomic nervous system (ANS),” he explains. The ANS controls heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and the ebb and flow of hormones like adrenaline, Dr. Webb says. When you consciously relax, your ANS slows in response. If you’re trying to unwind, avoid these 10 popular de-stressors that can actually backfire.

Your heart rate drops

Young woman at home sitting on modern chair near window relaxing in living roomLeszek Glasner/Shutterstock

Relaxation techniques help shift that underlying activity in the autonomic nervous system from the adrenaline-laden fight-or-flight side to the aforementioned rest-and-digest part of your nervous system. “This has a variety of effects, from slowing heart rates and decreasing blood pressure to putting us ‘at ease’ and promoting a positive sense of well-being,” says Dr. Webb. “This makes our conscious activity more effective, including increased concentration and decreased anxiety.”

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