Isn’t it ironic how our body has protective
mechanisms that ends up hurting us in the long run? Our eyelashes are supposed
to protect our eyes from debris, but it is also the number one cause of
irritation in our eyes. The human body’s most important mechanism for survival which
is the stress response or fight and flight response can kill us overtime. The Stress
Response is a physiological reaction that our body has when we perceive a harmful
event, attack, or threat to survival.  The
physical effects of stress can be expressed as an increase in the heart rate or
the tensing of our muscles. As the initial stressor dissipates, the physical
condition is expected to return to normal. However, the phenomenon we are
seeing today is that stress has become an integral part of life. There is no
longer an on and off switch that dictates when it is supposed to be used.  This phenomenon is called the chronic stress
response. Overtime
the constant activation of stress can have negative effects on health.  Luckily chronic stress can be combated by
practicing progressive muscle relaxation. The implementation of this type of
therapy as a form of coping teaches individuals to become aware of the
physiological signs of stress and develop skills to relieve the negative
effects of stress.

To understand the negative health effects
of chronic stress we must understand what is stress and physiology behind it.
Stress is a natural part of life and cannot be avoided. It is experienced when
the demand of life exceeds a person’s abilities and resources for coping.  This reaction occurs in two parts, the fast
reaction to sudden stress called Sympathetic Adrenal Medullary (SAM), and a
slow acting response with long lasting effect called the Hypothalamic Pituitary
Adrenal axis (HPA axis).  Essentially
both systems are triggered at the same time, but SAM is instantaneous and HPA
is much slower because it needs a continuing stressor and it is only activated
in more extreme circumstances. When the brain perceives sudden stress, it
activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which then
stimulates the adrenal medulla, to release epinephrine(adrenaline) and norepinephrine(noradrenaline).
This leads to the physiological changes associated with stress like an increase
in heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating. These hormones collectively called
catecholamine also dilate the airway for better airflow, and increases blood
sugar for fuel, and slows down digestion until the person deal with the
immediate stressful situation. If the stressor is still an issue the HPA pathway
will then be activated so that a steady flow of fuel is provided to deal with
the ongoing demands of stress. What happens is the hypothalamus sends signals
to the pituitary gland which lead to the production of the hormone ACTH. This
hormone circulates through the blood stream until it stimulates the adrenal
cortex, to release two families of hormones called the glucocorticoid
(cortisol, Corticosterone, and Cortisone) and mineralocorticoids.
Glucocorticoids affect several metabolic processes by these action: Breaking
down protein so that the body can use it for energy, making blood vessels more
sensitive to agents promoting constriction, inhibiting the process of
inflammation, and decreasing the number of white blood cells released from the
thymus gland. Also, the mineralocorticoids aldosterone is released causing the
body to retain sodium and water, which then in turn increases blood pressure.

Simultaneously the effect of the stress hormones
in the body result in the positive relationship of stress and health. For
example, blood pressure is an important component of the stress response, so it
makes sense that stress can result in hypertension. As we stated above some of
the effect of stress includes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, blood
sugar, and inhibition of digestive and immune function, etc so consequently
this results in health issues in all of the body system. It can exacerbate
existing health issues such as asthma, acne or can even result in diabetes or
even cancer. Stress should be managed, and the relaxation response should be
elicited so that the negative effects of stress can be combatted.

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A cam therapy that has been empirically proven
to reduce the negative effects of stress is progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).  It has become a popular form of therapy
because of it physiological and psychological benefits, low cost, ease of teaching,
and effectiveness across a range of people. PMR has been shown to lower blood
pressure, cortisol, heart rate, fatigue, anxiety, as well as increasing the
perception of control, quality of sleep, and energy. Progressive muscle
relaxation is a method of deep muscle relaxation based on the evidence that
muscle tension is the body’s physiological response to stress. Every time your
brain perceives a stressor your entire skeletal muscle reacts within a matter
of seconds. You might induce the stature of the primitive man by rising on the
ball of your feet and hunching forward or if the stressor is work related you
might notice yourself bending over your desk with clenched shoulders. If this reaction
is prolonged due to chronic stress, it can result in over tension,   a condition
characterized by sensation of tightness in the muscles, aches, pain, and
headaches. To reverse this process, you must learn to relax the skeletal
muscles so that the hyperactive responses due to stress could be reduced.

There are several mechanisms by which PMR
may reduce stress. One method is that tension relief results in the positive
sensation that correspond to somatic and cognitive arousal reduction. Tensing
and relaxing muscles alleviates physical tension and increases feelings of relaxation.
Another potential mechanism is disengagement from unnecessary goal directed and
analytic activity. A third possible mechanism is maintaining focus on simple
stimuli. Mentally focusing on following the instructions and the contrast
between tension and relaxation is a cognitive technique that sustains attention
on the task at hand, leaving little time to focus on thoughts of stressors.

When you practice PMR you learn a form of
internal biofeedback in which you acquire the ability to monitor responses coming
from your muscles instead of a device. You learn that tension is the
contraction of skeletal muscle that generate feeling of tension and relaxation
is the elongation or lengthening of the muscle fibers which then eliminates the
tension sensation. It involves slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle
group in the body.  To acquire such
ability, you must first learn to recognize subtle states of tension. The
general procedure of PMR is to recognize the state of being tense, relaxing the
tension away, and contrasting the sensation of being tense and relaxed. The goal
of PMR is to acquire control of all the skeletal muscle so that any portion may
be systematically relaxed as one chooses. This is all possible because skeletal
muscles are the only voluntary muscles that we can bend to our will. If we can
train our skeletal muscles to contract so that we can move, we can also train
the skeletal muscle to relax by will as well.

When you activate the relaxation response through
progressive relaxation you will feel a relaxation states of disengaged and feeling
of being physically relaxed.  These
feelings may occur because PMR decrease the amount of afferent neural impulses
the reticular formation receive from the skeletal muscles.  This is important because the reticular
formation is responsible for the communication between spinal cord, cerebrum,
and cerebellum, and works in cycle with the posterior hypothalamus and cortex.
Finding suggest that a decrease in proprioceptive input in the hypothalamus results
in the lessening of hypothalamic-cortical and autonomic discharge. More recent studies
of PMR has been documented to decrease sympathetic arousal including a decrease
in circulating norepinephrine levels and myocardial contractility, as well as
decreased electrodermal activity and heart rate levels and reactivity. (Mcguigan
and Lehrer page 61) So by practicing PMR it will not only help with the current
symptoms of stress but will help with future stress reactivity.  


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