Managing Stress with the Relaxation Response

John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP

Just relax! It sounds so simple.

Relaxation does indeed sound simple but skillful relaxation isn’t necessarily easy. While there are many unskillful, unhealthy ways to relax, you can achieve significant cardiovascular, emotional and other health benefits from the regular practice of skillful relaxation for stress management.

One of the best ways to skillfully relax is by practicing the Relaxation Response. Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson coined the phrase ‘Relaxation Response’ in the 1970s after studying mind-body approaches to cardiovascular health and disease. He initially showed that the simple practice of the Relaxation Response helped lower blood pressure, even helping some patients reduce their medication needs.

The Relaxation Response has been the primary technique used over the last 40 years at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard Medical School. It has been shown to help a wide variety of stress-related medical conditions including chronic pain, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, arthritis, intestinal disorders, skin conditions and much more. It has also been shown to improve the quality of life for those with life-threatening diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Here are the basic steps for practicing Benson’s Relaxation Response-

1.  First, choose a focus word (or short phrase, prayer or internal sound). You can choose a word that has a religious or special meaning to you or a neutral word such as: One, Now, Being, Ocean, Love, Peace, Calm, Relax, Present or Present Moment. The thing to remember is that the meaning of the focus word is not the point. Rather, you are cultivating the gentle resting of your attention on the word. Eventually, the word may fade away as you repeat it – leaving you in a physiologically healthful state of ‘restful alertness’. That is the goal.

2. It is good to turn off phones and arrange it so the dog or cat won’t startle you by jumping into your lap. You may want to inform others that you are taking a health break and close the door. You can make a sign for the door saying ‘Quiet Please’ or ‘Meditating’. However, if it is not absolutely necessary to create a protected quiet zone. See #6 below for advice on handling distractions.

3. It is best to assume a comfortable seated or reclining position and allow the eyes to close. You can also lie down but that will increase the likelihood of falling asleep. Sleep is wonderful, but ‘restful alertness’ is the goal of the Relaxation Response practice.

4. Allow your muscles to relax, especially paying attention to the jaw, neck, shoulders, back and other places you know you hold tension. Over time, you may feel tension and relaxation more easily throughout the body.

5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, repeat your focus word, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself. At least in the beginning, this repetition may be easier to coordinate with the out breath. Over time, however, try to repeat your word without timing the repetition to the breath.

6. Be non-judgmental about distractions. When sounds, body sensations, feelings, emotions and other thoughts come to mind, simply notice them without judgment and gently return to the repetition of your focus word, phrase or prayer.

7. A recommended time of practice is 10-20 minutes, although even 1 minute (especially during stressful times) can help manage stress and cultivate a sense of self-mastery and self-care.

8. After your practice period ends, rather than quickly returning to activity, continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then, open your eyes and sit for another minute before returning to regular activity. Notice this important transition time. Your eyes are open as in daily activity yet the mind is quieter than usual after your practice. Later in the day, by simply remembering this calmness with open eyes, a hint of relaxation and self-care can be cultivated at any moment throughout your day.

9. Practice! Practice! Practice! This technique is most effective if practiced once or twice daily. Although anytime is fine, ideal practice times are before breakfast and before the evening meal. Practicing the Relaxation Response before meals can help digestion, which is another important ingredient in self-care, cardiovascular health and managing stress-related conditions.

About the author-

Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations. He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org.