Lloyd Resnick

A once (and future) meditator tries the relaxation response for stress

In the early 1970s, when Dr. Herbert Benson was defining and testing the techniques he presented to the world in his revolutionary book, The Relaxation Response, I was a hippie teenager learning transcendental meditation (TM). Flash forward about 40 years and I’m sitting in an amphitheater packed with a few hundred medical students, faculty, and staffers from Harvard Medical School listening to the iconic director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute explain the myriad benefits of the relaxation response.

The relaxation response is a self-induced quieting of brain activity. It leads to a body-wide slowdown and a feeling of well-being that have measurably positive effects on disorders caused by stress or made worse by it, including high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, and many digestive disorders. As Dr. Benson describes in Stress Management, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, the relaxation response may even change how our genes express themselves.

Achieving the relaxation response might seem too simple to be effective, but it works: Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Relax your muscles and silently repeat a word, phrase, sound, or short prayer of your choosing over and over. When stray thoughts interfere (as they will), let them come and go and return to your word, phrase, or sound. Dr. Benson quipped that he chose “one” as the repetitive word for use in The Relaxation Response because the Harvard Medical School students he enrolled back then as study subjects lost count on their way to “ten.”

Then it was our turn. Dr. Benson led the auditorium full of presumably stressed-out people (the Red Sox had lost their final regular-season home game the night before, to name just one minor stressor) in a five-minute exercise to help us experience what he’s been talking and writing about for decades. I recalled my TM mantra, and after five minutes of quietude and presumably turning on the relaxation response, I felt reenergized and alert.

As enthusiastic as Dr. Benson is about the relaxation response, he’s not fussy about how you achieve it—any technique from any tradition, religious or secular, will do. But you have to do it every day to get the benefits, he emphasized. Therein lay the rub for me: I gradually but inexorably let TM slip out of my daily routine sometime in the 1980s.

“We can’t change the stressors in our lives,” Dr. Benson concluded. “But doing this for 10 to 20 minutes every day will change our reactions to them.” (You can watch Dr. Benson’s entire presentation at Harvard Medical School’s Talks@12.)

Convinced, I’m now getting up a little earlier in the morning to squeeze some meditation back into my life.

Stress Management, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, provides in-depth information on identifying your stress warning signs and learning how to manage stress. To order this report—or one of Harvard Medical School’s other special health reports and newsletters—visit health.harvard.edu/special_health_reports. There you’ll find summaries, free excerpts, and the tables of contents from all our Special Health Reports, as well as free health news articles and blogs from the doctors and editors at Harvard Health Publications.

Comments:

  1. Cassie Miller

    Stress is very common nowadays especially for those people dealing with a lot of problems. This is compose of too much worrying, anger,disappointment’s, hard work(physically)and hard work (mentally). I think this is not only occurring to adults but also to teens and students that will lead them to something that can even harm themselves.

  2. Peter Lind

    I think any time you talk about stress or should I say reducing stress is a good thing. Everybody deals with it whether you’re old or young rich or poor; it doesn’t matter. When Benson first talked about the stress response he brought in a new twist on an old idea. Just like you talk about, how stress affects us we should be proactive in our dealing with it.

  3. Pinata Hunter

    Have never tryed meditation I will definetly have to try and see if it works, so i’ll probably see you on the meditation planes

  4. Heather Smith

    Good post, not only relaxation but also a happy disposition in life for me is the right response not to have a stressful life.

  5. Sophia

    I started doing meditation a long time ago, but only tried TM recently. It’s great for stress and really helped when work was getting too much! Great post.

    Sophia
    [URL removed by moderator]

  6. Green Tea

    Meditatation is one of best ways to keep yourself stressfree. It also gives energy to work for a long time.

  7. Anonymous

    I suggest a wonder time in the spa, get a massage and feel the wonderful aromas of the essential oils, to relieve the stress. Although everyday is not really required, maybe 1 a week would be wonderful enough =D

  8. Britt Marice

    Years ago I tried a few different ways to meditate but finally found something really deep when I learned TM. From my experience its the only way to go. Plus they are always there for you to get a free follow up lessons or whatever you need.

  9. naturalemotion

    This a good article, when I had heart trouble or experiencing stress, sometimes i like to do meditation. with the accompaniment of a musical, relaxes muscles and concentrate on something beautiful can reduce the burden of stress.

  10. Jimmy

    While Benson’s technique may produce some relaxation, I think it’s important to note that the relaxation response as originally hypothesized was never substantiated by science, and in fact has been disproved many times over. Benson’s premise was that the mind-body state recorded during the early 70s in hundreds of subjects practicing Transcendental Meditation could be reproduced by any number of meditation techniques — including the one Benson made up (the Relaxation Response technique), which was very loosely based on TM. But even the initial research studies, to anyone who looked closely with an objective eye, did not support this premise. The studies on TM and Benson’s technique showed many physiological distinctions between the states produced by these two practices. TM produced deeper levels of rest (measured by GSR, plasma lactate, cortisol, and respiration, etc.) and an entirely different brain pattern: highly coherent alpha waves during TM, especially in the prefrontal cortex. For an analysis of the research, please see: The Myth of the Relaxation Response http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/ComparisonofTechniques/RelaxationResponse/index.cfm

    Forty years of research in meditation has demonstrated that different meditation techniques produce very different results, and that there is no single “relaxation response” induced in the physiology by the various meditation techniques.

    You might also read: http://meditationasheville.blogspot.com/2011/03/transcendental-meditation-technique-and.html

  11. knee walker

    Many people have a fear of meditation. For many, it goes against some of their religious beliefs. Thankfully, Dr. Benson developed a technique he has labeled “The Relaxation Response.

    This is exactly what meditation does, but Benson’s process doesn’t require the act of active mediation. And it doesn’t require years of practice to reach any certain level of awareness. The beauty of The Relaxation Response is that anyone – regardless of religious affiliation – can perform this exercise anywhere.

    • jimmy goodman

      Yes, it is important to know if a practice has religious overtones or involves faith or beliefs that one might tend to shy away from. That’s why I personally prefer TM: it is completely free of religious orientation. But that’s not the only reason. I think the main concern is one of effectiveness: the research shows that not all practices produce the same results.

  12. knee walker

    Many people have a fear of meditation. For many, it goes against some of their religious beliefs. Thankfully, Dr. Benson developed a technique he has labeled “The Relaxation Response.

    This is exactly what meditation does, but Benson’s process doesn’t require the act of active mediation. And it doesn’t require years of practice to reach any certain level of awareness. The beauty of The Relaxation Response is that anyone – regardless of religious affiliation – can perform this exercise anywhere.

  13. jimmy goodman

    It’s important to note that the relaxation response as originally hypothesized was never substantiated by science, and in fact has been disproved many times over. Benson’s premise was that the mind-body state recorded during the early 70s in hundreds of subjects practicing Transcendental Meditation could be reproduced by any number of meditation techniques — including the one Benson made up (the Relaxation Response technique), which was very loosely based on TM. But even the initial research studies, to anyone who looked closely with an objective eye, did not support this premise. The studies on TM and Benson’s technique showed many physiological distinctions between the states produced by these two practices. TM produced deeper levels of rest (measured by GSR, plasma lactate, cortisol, and respiration, etc.) and an entirely different brain pattern: highly coherent alpha waves during TM, especially in the prefrontal cortex. For an analysis of the research, please see: The Myth of the Relaxation Response http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/ComparisonofTechniques/RelaxationResponse/index.cfm

    While Benson’s technique may produce some relaxation, forty years of research in meditation has demonstrated that different meditation techniques produce very different results, and that there is no single “relaxation response” induced in the physiology by the various meditation techniques.

    You might also read: http://meditationasheville.blogspot.com/2011/03/transcendental-meditation-technique-and.html

  14. tammy harshaw

    >>>> I suggest you check out the latest research on meditation practices — it definitely matters which meditation technique you use: they do not all elicit the same response in mind and body. The EEG coherence and integrated brain function consistently seen during TM has never been noticed during any of the research on the Relaxation Response practice of Benson’s. Dozens of peer-reviewed studies in brain research have established TM’s distinct brain pattern. See Cognitive Processing, 11:1, 2010.

    MIndfulness produces a completely different physiological state and has its own brain signature (theta), different from Benson’s meditation and also different from TM (which creates high amplitude alpha coherence). Concentration practices (like Tibetan Buddhist compassion meditation) yields another distinct neurophysiological response and also has its own brain pattern (gamma).

    Benson overlooked the most vital aspect of Transcendental Meditation when he devised his relaxation technique: the process of transcending. TM consistently produces a 4th state of consciousness — from the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeanne-ball/fourth-state-of-consciousness_b_897085.html

  15. jimmy goodman

    While Benson’s technique may produce some relaxation, I think it’s important to note that the relaxation response as originally hypothesized was never substantiated by science, and in fact has been disproved many times over. Benson’s premise was that the mind-body state recorded during the early 70s in hundreds of subjects practicing Transcendental Meditation could be reproduced by any number of meditation techniques — including the one Benson made up (the Relaxation Response technique), which was very loosely based on TM. But even the initial research studies, to anyone who looked closely with an objective eye, did not support this premise. The studies on TM and Benson’s technique showed many physiological distinctions between the states produced by these two practices. TM produced deeper levels of rest (measured by GSR, plasma lactate, cortisol, and respiration, etc.) and an entirely different brain pattern: highly coherent alpha waves during TM, especially in the prefrontal cortex. For an analysis of the research, please see: The Myth of the Relaxation Response http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/ComparisonofTechniques/RelaxationResponse/index.cfm

    Forty years of research in meditation has demonstrated that different meditation techniques produce very different results, and that there is no single “relaxation response” induced in the physiology by the various meditation techniques.

    You might also read: http://meditationasheville.blogspot.com/2011/03/transcendental-meditation-technique-and.html

  16. Saijanai

    You might want go back to your local TM center and get your TM meditation checked (it’s free). The difference in effects between the Relaxation Response and TM accumulate over time.