The Relaxation Response

The specific term "the relaxation response" was coined in the 1970’s by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School who stated, "the relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress... and the opposite of the fight or flight response."

Dr. Benson brought new awareness to this idea in the modern age, but engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to trigger a state of relaxation has been consciously used for thousands of years through yogic and meditation techniques.

As I explained in my posting "The Chemical Story of Stress," the impact of having the fight-or-flight or stress response chronically engaged has debilitating effects for the body and the mind. Being able to convert the stress response to the relaxation response is a key factor in health and an important part of managing stress.

Dr. Benson's Relaxation Response technique had a specific series of steps to elicit the response, which can be found in his book "The Relaxation Response" on pages 162-163, but this profound state of rest can be evoked through several techniques including:

  • Meditation
  • Pranayama or breath exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Yoga, tai chi, and Qi Gong
  • Repetitive prayer
  • Guided audio meditations
  • Guided imagery

Except for the movement oriented activities, these techniques benefit from the following aspects to engage the parasympathetic nervous system which creates the relaxation response.

A Quiet Environment. A calm environment with minimal distractions is a good place to start when you are learning. As you develop a stronger neurological pathway between your technique and the relaxation response, you will be able to do it even in more stimulating and distracting circumstances.

A Mental Device. Dr. Benson believed in a constant stimulus such as a sound, word, or phrase repeated silently or aloud; or fixing gazing at an object to shift the mind from an outward focus to an inner state of being. In yoga we call this anchoring the mind. To help shut off the outer world, the eyes are usually closed. If you are gazing at an object, you adopt what is called a soft gaze – looking at the object in a slightly glazed way without focusing fully. Following the breath with or without connecting a word or sound to the inhale or exhale is also used.

A Passive Attitude. When distracting thoughts occur, which inevitably they will, the idea is to disregard and redirect your attention back to the mental device focus. This can also be called allowing and letting go, being the neutral observer, or just noticing without attaching. Do not worry about how well you’re doing the technique. Simply adopt a "let it happen" attitude knowing that the flitting of the mind is natural and other thoughts are to be expected, especially as you are learning.

A Comfortable Position. Being comfortable in the physical body helps you fully relax and prevents further distractions from undue muscular tension. This is why in yoga you often begin with the physical postures before seated meditation. That said, it is not advised to practice these techniques while lying down as there is a tendency to fall asleep! Usually the postures will be seated positions such as kneeling or sitting in a cross-legged position.

To get started it can be helpful to attend a mindfulness or meditation class or use a guided meditation tool. Check your local resources or the numerous online tools available for purchase.

©2011, Jamie Durner, Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner & Wellness Educator at Ayurveda Wellness in Pewaukee, WI