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Managing Stress: The Relaxation Response

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Updated November 21, 2003

In a recent feature I discussed the fight-or-flight response which involves the autonomic nervous system preparing the body to fight or run. This response is behind many of the effects of stress on our mind/bodies. I also presented diaphragmatic breathing as a technique to help manage stress.

This week we will look at another technique to help manage stress - the Relaxation Response. Herbert Bensen, M.D. coined the phrase after studying people who practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM). TM has been shown to help people reduce the activity of their autonomic nervous systems. Bensen took the principles of TM and removed them from their Eastern religious context in order to make them more accessible for westerners.

The Relaxation Response:

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed.
  2. Pay attention to your breathing, and repeat a word or phrase or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
  3. When you notice your mind wandering (It will) just notice it and passively bring your attention back to your breathing.
  4. Practice for approximately 20 minutes every day (or at least 3-4 times per week). Don't set an alarm, but sit with a clock in view if necessary.

The relaxation response represents a form of meditation which has been practiced for many years. The technique can be found in every major religious tradition. It is a simple technique, but it is not easy to practice or to incorporate into your life. You will find your mind wandering, and you will probably find it difficult to set aside the time to practice. It feels like setting aside 20 minutes a day to sit and do nothing.

If you do incorporate this or any relaxation technique into your life you may notice at least the following four benefits:

  • You will gain increased awareness of whether you are tense or relaxed. You will be more "in touch with your body."
  • You will be better able to relax when you become stressed-out.
  • You may even reduce the resting level of your autonomic nervous system - walking around more relaxed all the time.
  • Your concentration may improve. By repeatedly bringing yourself back to the meditation you are strengthening the part of your mind that decides what to think about.

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