Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Relaxation Response

By David Treviño, L.Ac.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Herbert Benson M.D., research cardiologist, professor, author, and founder of Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute. Dr. Benson coined the term Relaxation Response. It was through his work that I learned about the scientific benefits of relaxation.

According to Dr. Benson, eliciting the Relaxation Response is extremely beneficial as it counteracts the physiological effects of stress and the fight or flight response. In his book The Relaxation Response, Dr. Benson explains that regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response has been shown to be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress related disorders. The Relaxation Response in essence is the opposite response to the fight or flight response.

The "fight or flight" or stress response was originally discovered by the Harvard physiologist Dr. Walter B. Cannon (1871-1945). It occurs naturally when we perceive that we are under excessive pressure, and it is designed to protect us from bodily harm. Our sympathetic nervous system is instantly engaged in creating a number of physiological changes, including increased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, dilation of pupils, constriction of our blood vessels, and our blood becomes more viscous and ready to clot, enabling us to fight or flee.

It is not uncommon for individuals eliciting the fight or flight response to describe such physiological changes as muscle tension, headache, upset stomach, racing heartbeat, deep sighing, or shallow breathing. The fight or flight response becomes harmful when elicited frequently, as high levels of stress hormones are secreted and have been found to contribute to a host of stress related ailments such as cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, and others.

Luckily, the Relaxation Response turns off the fight or flight response, returning the body and its biochemistry back to pre-stress levels. Dr. Benson describes the Relaxation Response as a physical state of deep relaxation, which engages the other part of our nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system.

Harvard researchers have found that regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response can help any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, and others.

In a 2004 news interview, Dr. Benson explained that when the Relaxation Response is elicited "our brain waves actually change to an alpha state, our blood pressure and metabolism goes down, and any condition made worse by stress will diminish."

There are many methods to elicit the Relaxation Response including visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, acupuncture, massage, breathing techniques, prayer, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, and yoga. True relaxation is commonly cultivated by breaking the train of everyday thought by choosing a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or by focusing on our breath.

It is important to note that the Relaxation Response is a deep state of relaxation and is not equivalent to sitting with our feet up and watching television, listening to music, or reading a book. These forms of distraction are useful, yet they do not induce alpha brain wave activity the way deep relaxation does.

One of the most valuable tools we can learn in our life is to stimulate deep relaxation. The key is making an effort to spend some time every day to learn to calm our minds and create inner peace. Learning to relax is a great skill that may enable us to be better equipped to deal with life's unexpected stressors.

According to Dr. Benson, the best time to practice the Relaxation Response is first thing in the morning for ten to twenty minutes. Practicing once or twice daily is sufficient to counteract the stress response and bring about deep relaxation and inner peace. The following is the Relaxation Response technique reprinted from Dr. Herbert Benson's book The Relaxation Response.

Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response

1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.

2. Close your eyes.

3. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.

4. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word "one"* silently to yourself. For example, breathe in, and then out, and say "one"*, in and out, and repeat "one."* Breathe easily and naturally.

5. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.

6. Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace.

When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating "one."*

7. With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.

* Choose any soothing, mellifluous sound, preferably with no meaning or association, in order to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts.

Breathe easy, and feel your body relaxing.


Benson, Herbert. The Relaxation Response, New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers. 2000.