Using the relaxation response to reduce stress

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Ann MacDonald, Contributor, Harvard Health


The American Psychological Association has just released the results of its 2010 Stress in America survey. Among the findings: Nearly 75% of Americans who responded to an online survey said that their stress levels are so high that they feel unhealthy.

To put it mildly, we are living in stressful times. The economy is still struggling, jobs don’t seem to be coming back, and the housing boom gone bust has turned into one big mortgage mess. It’s getting to the point where I don’t want to read the newspaper any more.

In an attempt to develop a more positive outlook, I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Herbert Benson. A pioneer in mind/body medicine, Dr. Benson is currently director emeritus at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

I would love to say that the lecture was eye-opening, but it was really more eye-closing—and I mean that in a good way. Rather than lecture in the traditional sense, Dr. Benson gave us some tips on how to elicit the relaxation response—starting with having us close our eyes. As its name implies, the relaxation response is meant to counter the stress (or “fight or flight”) response.

First described by Dr. Walter B. Cannon at Harvard Medical School in the 1920s, the fight-or-flight response evolved as a survival mechanism. When we encounter a life-threatening situation, a surge of stress hormones prepares us to fight or to flee. As a result, our hearts pound, our muscles tense, and we are suddenly on high alert.

Unfortunately, people tend to activate the fight-or-flight response multiple times during a typical day, usually because of situations that are annoying and stressful, but not life threatening. These include traffic jams, long lines in the grocery store, or — in my case — editorial deadlines. But all those surging stress hormones can take a toll on the body. Over time, such low-grade chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.

The relaxation response may help people to counteract the toxic effects of chronic stress by slowing breathing rate, relaxing muscles, and reducing blood pressure.

So how exactly do you elicit the relaxation response? There is no single method that works for everyone, and it may take some practice before you find the method that is right for you.

During the lecture I attended, Dr. Benson lead us through a series of steps designed to slowly relax our bodies and minds. First we sat in a comfortable position. Then we focused on a single word or phrase of our choosing (such as “one” or “peace” or “shalom”). We did this for 10 minutes. We practiced deep abdominal breathing while silently repeating a focus word.

Did it work?  Results varied. I found it hard to settle down, although my breathing did slow a bit. But the physician sitting next to me said he felt his breathing slow considerably. And the woman on the other side of him actually fell asleep.

Given the times we live in, the relaxation response may be worth trying. If nothing else, it’s easy to do, free, and you have little to lose in trying it out.

Here are a few tips, posted on the website of the Benson-Henry Institute. You can also read more about the relaxation response by reading any of Dr. Benson’s books. He’s just published the latest, called Relaxation Revolution.

Let us know how the relaxation response works for you. Were you able to elicit it, and did the process make you feel more relaxed? What challenges did you encounter? What tips work for you?

In the meantime, happy breathing!