The Relaxation Response

. . . is the term coined by Herbert Benson, M.D., in 1968 or so when looking at the physiological data he was getting from TM (Transcendental Meditation) meditators who were coming to his lab to be measured.

Benson soon got tired of our relentless TM zealotry and the way we (TM teachers who were working for him) would sign official research documents with “Jai Guru Dev.” As TM teachers, we wanted to take the results from his lab and instantly use them as part of our advertising and our public lectures. TM at the time had meditation centers in every major city in the United States, and teachers on most every college campus across the country. It was a hugely popular movement.

But Benson needed to be able to “clone” TM, make it into a laboratory-standardized technique that could be replicated and measured at other labs. That’s what science is. So he decided to de-mystify mantras, and he started telling people to just pick their own mantra, such as the word, “ONE.” This scandalized the whole TM movement, but he had to do it. And truth be told, as far as I know, Benson in his 30 years or so of research on the physiology of meditation, publishing hundreds of scientific papers, is probably the greatest meditation scientist ever. I trust his findings.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, TM meditators were the guinea pigs of choice for scientists, because there were hundreds of thousands of them in the United States alone, and tens of thousands in other countries, their training was standardized, and they were so well trained that they could come into a medical lab and actually MEDITATE while the scientists stuck needles in their arms, electrodes on their heads, hands and hearts, and breathe into oxygen-consumption measuring masks. It’s hard to find people like that! Think about it. Who in their right mind would take out part of their day to do such a thing? When I used to do this, in the 70’s, it meant driving through ugly traffic to UCI Medical School, then going into a lab with a thousand rats in cages just a couple dozen feet away, the smell of ether in the air, and letting the guys in white coats poke me with huge needles and take blood samples while I meditated.

TM blew it, by alienating one of the great scientists at work in the field, and by pushing bad science – publishing in their ads the results of trial studies. But the Buddhists, by comparison, played it very smart, and gradually came to be the favorite of physiological researchers. The Buddhists cheerfully cooperated with the needs of scientists, it is a match made in heaven because Buddhism is a very clinical take on life anyway.

True story – I once had a client come to me in 1975 who had been doing Benson’s Relaxation Response, and liked the technique a lot, felt much more relaxed, but she said, “I have been feeling down, just sort of depressed and run-down for the last year. And I don’t know why.” That’s why she came to me. I asked her what her mantra was, and she replied, “Down.”

Anyway, I digress. Here is a selection from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

Benson’s website is here, at Massachusetts General Hospital. To quote from his site:

The Relaxation Response
In the late 1960's, in the same room in which Harvard Medical School's Walter Cannon performed fight-or-flight experiments 50 years earlier, Herbert Benson, MD found that there was a counterbalancing mechanism to the stress response. Just as stimulating an area of the hypothalamus can cause the stress response, so activating other areas of the brain results in its reduction. He defined this opposite state the "relaxation response."
A recent interview of Dr. Benson by ABC News provides a very good introduction to the Relaxation Response. The video of the interview can be found here:
Easy Ways to Take the Edge Off
The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension).
eliciting the relaxation response:
  • Your metabolism decreases
  • Your heart beats slower and your muscles relax
  • Your breathing becomes slower
  • Your blood pressure decreases
  • Your levels of nitric oxide are increased

If practiced regularly, it can have lasting effects. Elicitation of the relaxation response is at the heart of the BHI's research and clinical mind/body programs.

How to Elicit the Relaxation Response

Elicitation of the relaxation response is actually quite easy. There are two essential steps:
  1. Repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity.
  2. Passive disregard of everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and the return to your repetition.

The following is the generic technique taught at the Benson-Henry Institute:
  1. Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system, such as "one," "peace," "The Lord is my shepherd," "Hail Mary full of grace," or "shalom."
  2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck.
  5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
  6. Assume a passive attitude. Don't worry about how well you're doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, "Oh well," and gently return to your repetition.
  7. Continue for ten to 20 minutes.
  8. Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
  9. Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner.
Regular elicitation of the relaxation response has been scientifically proven to be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders. In fact, to the extent that any disease is caused or made worse by stress, the relaxation response can help.
Other techniques for evoking the relaxation response are:
  • Imagery
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Repetitive prayer
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Repetitive physical exercises
  • Breath focus
You may want to try more than one technique to find the one that suits you best.