Stress happens. In a moment, work, family, and more can ratchet up a great deal of pressure, tension, and anxiety. For everyone, even those whose job it is to help others deal with stress, the answer is not to avoid stress but to relieve it.
That’s when it’s time to turn to the relaxation response.
What is the Relaxation Response?
In 1975, Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School published his book The Relaxation Response. In it, he described a way to relieve stress and restore feelings of calm, inspire a more positive outlook and regain an overall sense of control over oneself. The relaxation response itself is simply the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Research shows those who can activate the parasympathetic nervous system practice enjoy incredible benefits. When its active, learning, memory, emotional balance improve. Gray matter in the brain increases.[i] The relaxation response has also been shown to improve metabolism, reduce inflammation and improve cellular function making it a way to ease conditions made worse by stress like hypertension, digestive disorders, and chronic muscle pain.[ii]
How to Promote the Relaxation Response
Relaxationresponse.org identifies four essential elements needed to promote the relaxation response[iii]:
- A quiet setting without the potential for interruption
- A way to prevent distraction
- Being in a physically comfortable position
The first requirement is straightforward. If you get interrupted, you won’t be able to focus as needed.
The second item addresses the challenge of the mind wandering. Thoughts often elicit feelings which may cause stress, even low levels of stress which would prevent the parasympathetic nervous system from activating and counteract the effort. To prevent the mind from wandering, it’s recommended to introduce focus, either an object to look at or a repeated word or sound.
No matter how hard you try, it’s likely you’ll get distracted at some point. Or maybe you won’t feel as relaxed as you want or hoped. Acceptance allows you accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect and just let go and return to the practice.
Finally, being comfortable is important to reduce real physical stress, however, you don’t want to be in a position that will allow you to fall asleep.
It’s recommended to breathe in the through the nose and out through the mouth, but there is no formalized breathing pattern.
A good practice time is about 20 minutes. However, this technique to relieve stress and restore calm can be used as needed such as on a short break, be it ten minutes or two.
If the relaxation response sounds a lot like meditation, it should. Dr. Benson developed it based on his encounter with experts in transcendental meditation. But one does not need to meditate to promote the relaxation response; the four steps above are all that’s needed. Of course, there are other ways to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Additional Ways to Promote the Relaxation Response
Sitting still can be challenge for those who like to be active. If you spend your day sitting, you may want to relax while moving. Or perhaps, due to health conditions, neither moving or sitting still can encourage relaxation.
Fortunately, all that’s needed to promote the relaxation response are the four elements noted above. This means there are plenty of ways to embrace this practice. Some practices which also work include:
- Tai Chi
- Qi Gong
- Breathing techniques
Mindfulness practice is another approach which has gained popularity recently. There are a variety of exercises that a mindfulness coach can teach to help achieve the relaxation response.
Ultimately, whatever approach you choose, you want to set time aside every day to practice. It will do more than calm the mind and restore a sense of peace. It will help maintain good health, keep your mind sharp and encourage the body’s natural healing process.
[i] Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research. 2011;191(1):36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006.
[ii] Manoj K. Bhasin, Jeffery A. Dusek, Bei-Hung Chang, Marie G. Joseph, John W. Denninger, Gregory L. Fricchione, Herbert Benson, Towia A. Libermann. Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (5): e62817