The Relaxation Response

The good news is that there are ways to reduce the negative impacts of stress, to “bring down the volume” and maintain balance. While the “fight-or-flight response” or “stress response” was scientifically “discovered” and named in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that a Harvard-trained cardiologist named Herbert Benson identified the body’s opposite reaction, which he coined “the relaxation response.”

There is, however, one catch: while the fight-or-flight response occurs automatically (Jane could not have prevented her physical reaction to the speeding car), the relaxation response must be “elicited” — you must do something to engage it and benefit from its effects. Fortunately, the “something” can be very, very simple and take less than fifteen minutes per day. In fact, you may already be performing an activity that you can build into a relaxation practice.

The two basic components of the relaxation response are:

Repeating a word, sound, prayer, phrase or muscular activity for 10-20 minutes once or twice daily. Examples of focus words or phrases include: “peace,” “relax,” “ocean,” “the Lord is my Shepherd,” “Shalom,” and “let go.” Muscular activities might include jogging, swimming, or lifting weights.

Maintaining a non-judging, passive attitude and disregarding everyday thoughts. A passive, non-judging attitude means not criticizing yourself for becoming distracted, but noticing the distraction and drawing your attention back to your relaxation practice.

The best way to elicit a basic, breath-focused relaxation response is by sitting in a chair with your back as straight as possible, legs unfolded, and hands resting in your lap. Gently close your eyes. If you’re using a word or phrase as your focus, begin to repeat it in rhythm with your breathing. Let your breath be easy, let go of any other thoughts, and continue to repeat your focus as you breathe in and breathe out.

Sound Too Easy?

Thousands of pages of validated research support the benefits of regularly experiencing this state of deep rest on everything from anxiety to cancer. For thousands of years, people have been eliciting the relaxation response through such methods as:

  • Meditation — a practice that involves quieting and focusing the mind to improve well-being;
  • Yoga — ancient systems consisting of relaxing and energizing postures and poses;
  • Visualization/imagery — the use of positive thoughts and images created by the mind to positively affect the mind and body;
  • Tai Chi/Qi Gung — ancient Chinese martial arts that are also used for relaxation and focus;
  • Progressive muscle relaxation — a procedure in which one concentrates on relaxing all muscle groups one by one; and
  • Prayer — rituals that bring one’s self into a conscious relationship with an infinite being.

You Have a Choice

Stress isn’t going anywhere. But many of us have forgotten that we have choices in how we deal with it. We need to remember the extraordinary power of our minds and bodies as we learn to live in ways that are more satisfying, full, rich, smooth and comfortable. Although we might begin by acknowledging that “we’re only human,” with many faults and fears, we must also acknowledge that it is our humanness that encourages us to make healthier choices in the way we live our lives.