How to Practice the Relaxation Response

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Why meditate?

Stress is a part of everyday life. Exposure to stress by itself is not necessarily a negative event. Events that are stressful such as buying a new home or getting married are also positive events. However experiencing job loss or developing a chronic illness can lead to long term problems. In addition, it is not the stressful event itself that is the problem, but rather the way you choose to interpret and react to the stressful situation. For example, if you are late for work and stuck in traffic there is nothing you can do, but plan to leave earlier the next time. However, while stuck in traffic it does not help to become angry or upset. The situation is not going to change. You can choose to become upset which will cause a rise in your blood pressure along with being late for work. You could also choose to remain calm and just get to work as soon as you can. You will still be late for work, however you will have avoided exposing your body to the effects of stress. Learning a meditation technique like the Relaxation Response can provide you with a skill to use during times when you feel tense.

What is the Relaxation Response

The Relaxation Response was developed by Dr. Herbert Benson who has been studying the effects of meditation on the body since the 1960’s. His research has been published in the American Journal of Physiology and in Scientific American. He has authored and coauthored over one hundred scientific publications. This research has shown that practicing meditation, can help to decrease breathing rate, slow down the heart rate, produce a higher concentration of oxygen in the blood, reduce blood pressure and decrease muscular tension. He has also published several books that teach meditation. It teaches you a process that can help to redirect the mind away from stressful thoughts which in turn will calm the body and mind.

Stress and its Effects on the Body

The Relaxation Response works by altering the activity of the fight or flight syndrome. The fight or flight syndrome is an innate process that helps your body to escape danger. When your body senses that it is facing a danger, reactions occur to help send blood away from the extremities (fingers and toes) and internal organs and redirect it to the muscles and brain to allow you to think and react faster. Your pupils dilate to improve vision, sweat glad activity increases and your heart rate and blood pressure increase to supply the body with the extra blood and oxygen you need. To conserve energy, the activity of the immune and digestive systems is reduced. Then when the danger is past, these reactions reverse and the body returns to a more relaxed state.

This reaction is essential when facing real danger, however it can create problems if it is elevated on a regular or long term basis. During times when you are worried about something, whether it is your job, money or a relationship, you are sending signals to the brain and body that something is wrong. This signals the fight or flight system to prepare to respond, although at a much lower level then if you were in actual danger. However if you go on worrying for days, weeks months or longer, the fight or flight system never fully calms down. Since activation of the fight or flight syndrome hinders the activity of the immune and digestive system and elevates the heart rate and blood pressure, long term activation of this system can lead to health problems. To counteract this, you need to find a way to give the mind and body a break from constant worry.

How the Relaxation Response Works

Constant worry, whether it is about an event that is actually happening such as a job loss or a perceived event, worrying that you might lose your job, can start to wear the body and mind down. You need to find a way to interrupt the worrying thoughts and allow the body and mind to slow down. This is where the Relaxation Response can help. By following the steps below, you interrupt the thoughts of constant worry, and replace them with calming actions such as simply following the breath. As you shift your attention, the body and mind receive signals that everything is OK. This in turn lets the body and mind unwind. More importantly, it reduces the activity of the fight or flight syndrome and it can reverse the effects of constant stress. Taking time each day to allow the mind and body to rest, will help to enhance the activity of the immune and digestive system. It can also give your heart a break so it does not have to pump as hard and allows the body to function more efficiently.

Step by Step Directions

Find a comfortable place where you can sit or lie down. You do not want to fall asleep during your practice, so sit up if you need to in order to stay awake. Begin to focus on your breath. Inhale through your nose as the abdomen expands or moves out. Pretend you are filling your belly with air. Then exhale through the nose and allow the belly to relax. You are trying to empty the belly of air. This may feel backwards at first, but with constant practice it will become natural.

For the next twenty minutes simply focus on your breath. If other thoughts enter the mind, just allow them to pass and redirect your attention back to the breath. When you first attempt this technique you may need to bring your attention back quite often. The more you practice the easier it will be to stay focused. You can either focus on the sensation of your breath moving in and out, or you can count the breath. As you breathe, silently say one on the inhale and two on the exhale. You can also use calming words. Silently say “I feel peaceful” on the inhale and “I am calm” on the exhale. You can substitute any words that work for you. The goal is to keep the mind away from worrying thoughts for at least twenty minutes to allow the body and mind to calm down.

Do not use an alarm to time yourself as you do not want to startle the body out of meditation. You can play soft music in the background if that helps. Your eyes can be closed or you can softly gaze downward. At the end of the twenty minutes, sit for a few more minutes to feel the effcts of your practice. Take time to come out of the meditaion slowly and hold onto this peaceful feeling throughout your day.

How Often to Practice

To get the most benefit from meditation, you should aim to practice at least fifteen to twenty minutes every day. If you are dealing with stress everyday you need to counteract it’s effects everyday as well. At times throughout the day when you start to feel tense, try taking a few deep breaths to help calm yourself.

It is important to not fall asleep during your practice. The goal of the Relaxation Response is to teach yourself a skill that can be used at times when you feel stressed. Falling asleep during stressful events is not an effective approach or even always possible. While sleeping may provide you with an escape from worry, it is not a useful skill that can be used in difficult situations. Falling asleep occasionally may happen if you allow yourself to become overtired. However, you shoud work to make any adjustments you need to stay awake during your meditation practice.

These two links will take you to sites for more information on Dr. Benson and the Relaxation Response.

Relaxation Response:

Benson-Henry Mind Body Medical Institute: