What is relaxation response?

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A self-induced, peaceful, relaxed mental state attained through various techniques.
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Overview

Herbert Benson, a graduate of Harvard Medical School and director emeritus at Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, published the book The Relaxation Response in 1975. The book includes data produced from research Benson conducted at Harvard’s Thorndike Memorial Laboratory and at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. Walter B. Cannon, another researcher who was at Harvard Medical School in the 1920s, had identified what he called the fight-or-flight physical response to stress on body and mind. Cannon found that perceived and actual life-threatening situations produced a flood of stress hormones to prepare a person to fight (confront the situation) or to flee. In such situations the heart pounds, breathing accelerates, and blood flow to the muscles is increased. This response is basically a survival mechanism, a natural physical response elicited when a person’s life is endangered.

Frequent situations in daily life, such as traffic jams, waiting in lines, financial difficulties, and family problems, also produce stress-related hormones that over time can take a toll on the body. The relaxation response was developed as a mechanism to counteract this hormonal response to stress.

Benson’s therapy was not new, and it was based on the age-old practices and philosophies of Transcendental Meditation (TM). For relaxation response, these practices are simplified and can be performed by anyone. To elicit the response, Benson offers the following instructions: Find a quiet, peaceful environment for practice; muscles should be consciously relaxed; a word such as “one” or “peace,” or a phrase, possibly a prayer, should be repeated silently in the mind; any intrusive thoughts should be observed only and then passively dismissed; and breathing should be slow and deep. Benson advises practicing this technique from ten to twenty minutes each day. The process is quite individualized, however, and no single method works for everyone. Other techniques may be equally effective, such as running, yoga, knitting, dance, or playing a musical instrument.

By studying the effects of stress on the human body and the various techniques to counteract them, Benson demonstrated the connection of mind and body and how this connection affects health and well-being. His continuing research includes the possible clinical uses of the response in medicine and psychiatry.

Mechanism of Action

The release of fight-or-flight hormones when a person is no longer threatened is counteracted through natural activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Findings from research conducted at Harvard Medical School in the late 1960s showed that Transcendental Meditation could produce profound physiologic changes that were opposite to those produced by stress. Metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, and rate of breathing could all be decreased. TM and the relaxation response work in essentially the same way and, when practiced, allow the practitioner to counteract stress voluntarily.

Uses and Applications

The relaxation response may be practiced at will to counteract stress inherent in daily life, to reduce general stress levels and discomfort, to reduce levels of pain or distress in illness, and to alleviate physical symptoms of stress on the body. Continuing research has broadened possible applications to uses such as reducing stress and improving cognition in healthy aging adults, improving productivity in workers, reducing pain in people with chronic diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and arthritis, and improving academic performance.

Scientific Evidence

A body of scientific evidence exists from continuing research by Benson, his associates, and others. Much of this research has been conducted at Harvard Medical School, Harvard’s Thorndike Memorial Laboratory, and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

The practice of meditation has been shown by magnetic resonance imaging to activate neural structures involved in attention and control of the autonomic nervous system. Measurably lower oxygen consumption, heart rate, respiration, and blood lactate indicate a decrease in activity of the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in a restful, or hypometabolic, state. This is the opposite of the increased activity, or hypermetabolic state, produced by stress.

Double-blind studies have been conducted with varying results. One study tried to determine if combining acupuncture treatments with the relaxation response could improve quality of life for persons with human immunodeficiency virus infection or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Conclusions from the pilot trial confirmed the benefits of combined therapies for some measures of improved quality of life. Although skeptics remain, research is continuing on possible uses of the relaxation response in medicine and psychiatry using improved research tools and methods.

Choosing a Practitioner

The relaxation response can be self-taught and does not require a practitioner. Classes, meditation groups, and many instruction books are available for the person who wishes to learn the technique.

Safety Issues

There are no identified safety issues with the practice of the relaxation response. Benson has warned, however, that if it is used as a medical treatment, it should be practiced only with the knowledge and approval of, and under the supervision of, a qualified physician.

Bibliography

Benson, H. “The Relaxation Response: Its Subjective and Objective Historical Precedents and Physiology.” Trends in Neurosciences 6 (1983): 281-284. Discusses research at Harvard’s Thorndike Memorial Laboratory in defining the physiology and in describing the subjective and objective historical precedents and clinical usefulness of the relaxation response.

_______, and M. Klipper. The Relaxation Response. New York: William Morrow, 1975. Benson’s explanation and synthesis of research on the relaxation response, based on historical, religious, and literary writings, with related scientific data from research conducted by Benson and associates. This work was expanded and updated in 2000, citing additional information on updated research.

Lazar, S., et al. “Functional Brain Mapping of the Relaxation Response and Meditation.” NeuroReport 11 (2000): 1581-1585. Discusses how magnetic resonance imaging shows that the practice of meditation activates neural structures affecting attention and control of the autonomic nervous system.

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