How to Tap into Your Body's Healing Relaxation Response

Elicit Your Relaxation Response with Daily Meditation

woman meditating
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Most of us are all too familiar with our body's stress response, that psychological fight-or-flight reaction, but what about its relaxation response? Dr. Herbert Benson and his group at the Mind-Body Medical Institute have been studying the relaxation response since the 1970s and have linked its use to reductions in high blood pressure among other health benefits. The idea is simple: just as the body responds to certain cues and situations with a stress response, it can also respond with a relaxation response.

Your Body's Relaxation Response

Dr. Herbert Benson's work with what he coined as the body's "relaxation response" began in the late 1960s with a group of people who claimed that they could reduce blood pressure with Transcendental Meditation (TM). In his New York Times best-selling book that followed, aptly named "The Relaxation Response," Dr. Benson effectively brought meditation into the mainstream in the United States.

Since then, Dr. Benson's work has spurred significant research into the effects of meditation and other relaxation techniques. Dr. Benson, too, has continued his work in the area of the mind-body connection. In his book, Dr. Benson detailed the scientific benefits of relaxation and meditation, noting that regular meditation can be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress and anxiety-related disorders. Today, it is understood that regularly eliciting the body's relaxation response can aid most health concerns that are caused or worsened by chronic stress which includes conditions like hypertension (high blood pressure), anxiety disorders, insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, and even fibromyalgia.

How to Tap into Your Relaxation Response

Dr. Benson defined the relaxation response as each individual's capacity to stimulate the release of chemicals and brain signals that relax your muscles, slow your organs, and increase blood flow to your brain. The relaxation response is essentially a physical state of deep relaxation, one that connects with the parasympathic nervous system.

Though Dr. Benson's work was one of the first of its kind in the medical science field, eliciting the relaxation response was not a new practice. Practices like accupuncture, yoga, and meditation might be a relatively new practice in the Western world, but they has a rich history in cultures the world over. Today, Dr. Benson continues to teach patients how to elicit the relaxation response through a multi-step process that essentially takes patients through a short meditative practice.

With about 20 minutes a day, you can learn to use the relaxation response to reduce stress and promote better health and wellbeing. Here's how.

1. Sit

Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit. Sit with you back straight either in a chair with both feet on the floor or crossed legged on a small pillow. Be comfortable, but alert and aware of your body.

2. Close Your Eyes

Close your eyes and take your focus inward. Let everything fall away.

3. Relax Your Muscles

Continuing to sit up straight with your eyes closed, begin to actively relax your muscles starting with your toes all the way up to your face.

Picture each melting away and letting do. 

4. Breathe In

Become aware of your breath. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose. Feel the breath fill your body from your belly to your chest. You may choose to count to the number four (1, 2, 3, 4...etc.) with each breath in, or you may choose a short mantra to time with your breath.

5. Breathe out

Just as you inhaled, exhale through your nose using the same count of four or your mantra. Feel your lungs deflate and your body relax further. Breathe out fully. 

6. Repeat

Continue breathing with your count or mantra for 20 minutes. Try not to use an alarm, instead keep a clock close. At the end of your practice, sit quietly for a moment with your eyes closed letting your breathing return to normal. When you are ready, slowly blink your eyes open. Take care not to stand up too soon or too quickly. Gradually allow your body to awake.

More Relaxation Response Meditation Tips

The meditation exercise can be used any time of day and multiple times a day, but the most important thing is that you practice daily. Many find their meditation a great way to start the day. Others dedicate twenty minutes just before bed. Make time in your routine to practice.

Meditation comes more easily to some than others. If you find your mind starting to drift in thought, gently return your attention to your breathing. Do not judge yourself for your thoughts, simply allow them to pass. Eventually, the practice will come easier.

Though a dedicated twenty minute practice is the key, many find that mini practices throughout the day can help their mind and body deal with daily stressors. Whether it is a moment at your desk or in your car just before the commute home, taking a minute to close your eyes and breath deeply will begin to teach your body how to respond to stress in a calm way.

Sources

Benson, Herbert.The Relaxation Response. New York: Morrow, 1975. 

Martin, Sara. "The Power of the Relaxation Response." Monitor on Psychology 39.9 (2008): 32.

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