Using the relaxation response to reduce stress

Ann MacDonald

Contributor, Harvard Health

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The American Psychological Association has just released the results of its 2010 Stress in America survey. Among the findings: Nearly 75% of Americans who responded to an online survey said that their stress levels are so high that they feel unhealthy.

To put it mildly, we are living in stressful times. The economy is still struggling, jobs don’t seem to be coming back, and the housing boom gone bust has turned into one big mortgage mess. It’s getting to the point where I don’t want to read the newspaper any more.

In an attempt to develop a more positive outlook, I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Herbert Benson. A pioneer in mind/body medicine, Dr. Benson is currently director emeritus at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

I would love to say that the lecture was eye-opening, but it was really more eye-closing—and I mean that in a good way. Rather than lecture in the traditional sense, Dr. Benson gave us some tips on how to elicit the relaxation response—starting with having us close our eyes. As its name implies, the relaxation response is meant to counter the stress (or “fight or flight”) response.

First described by Dr. Walter B. Cannon at Harvard Medical School in the 1920s, the fight-or-flight response evolved as a survival mechanism. When we encounter a life-threatening situation, a surge of stress hormones prepares us to fight or to flee. As a result, our hearts pound, our muscles tense, and we are suddenly on high alert.

Unfortunately, people tend to activate the fight-or-flight response multiple times during a typical day, usually because of situations that are annoying and stressful, but not life threatening. These include traffic jams, long lines in the grocery store, or — in my case — editorial deadlines. But all those surging stress hormones can take a toll on the body. Over time, such low-grade chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.

The relaxation response may help people to counteract the toxic effects of chronic stress by slowing breathing rate, relaxing muscles, and reducing blood pressure.

So how exactly do you elicit the relaxation response? There is no single method that works for everyone, and it may take some practice before you find the method that is right for you.

During the lecture I attended, Dr. Benson lead us through a series of steps designed to slowly relax our bodies and minds. First we sat in a comfortable position. Then we focused on a single word or phrase of our choosing (such as “one” or “peace” or “shalom”). We did this for 10 minutes. We practiced deep abdominal breathing while silently repeating a focus word.

Did it work?  Results varied. I found it hard to settle down, although my breathing did slow a bit. But the physician sitting next to me said he felt his breathing slow considerably. And the woman on the other side of him actually fell asleep.

Given the times we live in, the relaxation response may be worth trying. If nothing else, it’s easy to do, free, and you have little to lose in trying it out.

Here are a few tips, posted on the website of the Benson-Henry Institute. You can also read more about the relaxation response by reading any of Dr. Benson’s books. He’s just published the latest, called Relaxation Revolution.

Let us know how the relaxation response works for you. Were you able to elicit it, and did the process make you feel more relaxed? What challenges did you encounter? What tips work for you?

In the meantime, happy breathing!


  1. Recife Directory

    The relaxation technique worked for me. I was able to hold focus. Felt very relaxed.

  2. rick britton

    reducing stress, relaxation and lower stress hormone levels are important for sleep disorder sufferers so thanks so much for the post. Will pass it on to my readers

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  3. Proven Addiction Recovery

    We need exercises like these to de-stress. It’s taking over our lives. Too much illness. Too much busyness. Thanks Ann for sharing this post. For our loved ones that have resorted to substances to de-stress, let’s all take time to remember it’s National Alcohol and Drug addiction Recovery this month (every Sept).

  4. Meital

    Very interesting and I agree – breathing exercises are very helpful for stress, for me they were excellent for treating my anxiety problems, I practiced a breathing exercise called “the sigh breath”,
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  5. Sanjaya

    There is immense power in the chanting of a single word or phrase as it invokes a sense of clarity in our brain and brings it to natural focus. I like to use a single phrase such as a hindu mantra like “shreem” but whatever works for you is ideal. Within about 5-10 minutes of chanting the sound imbues upon me an immense sense of calm and relaxation – would love to see a study of why this is so 🙂

  6. Vicki

    If we only would be more in touch with our body, we could let the stress leave simply by creating it in our thoughts.

  7. Jael

    Many people also use meditation to improve their health conditions. Since meditation can aid in relaxation, it can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. Meditating is a good way to forgo the tension of a bad day. It keeps the mind healthy, and a healthy mind helps lead to a healthier body.
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  8. acls

    It is amazing how stress how truly reek havoc on our sleep patterns. I once had insomnia for over 6 months and couldn’t sleep for more than 1 or 2 hours a night. Sleep restriction helped and of course exercise — hard to get in that habit tho. Thanks for the read!

  9. difficulty breathing

    I think it is important to do one nice thing for yourself every day. It it amazing how getting caught up in day to day activities how we loose track of what is important. One of my favorite things to do to relax is to do crystal bowls yoga.

  10. Taylor

    Corporate world stress had basically destroyed my ability to sleep properly so I am always on the look out for ways to illicit a relaxation response, calm my body and mind down, but have not had a great deal of success with many methods.

    One thing that has been effective if I stick with it is self hypnosis, but only if I go and continually get some coaching to improve my technique.

    Without the aid of a professional, I couldn’t get much out of the exercises. But once I was shown how to do it properly, I started to get some results, and my stress level and sleep both improved.

    Seems like there are so many things to try out there. Just have to find the tools to work for each person.

    Definitely worth the effort versus getting sick and/or run down from stress

  11. James

    Stress Relaxation is very important to keep oneself away from illnesses & diseases. Meditation is the way to get relax from stress. Give 15 minutes daily to meditation & 15 minutes to yoga to keep oneself fit.

  12. Tony

    Great Post my friend Dr. Frank Lieberman taut me how to relax using deep breathing. And it really works just fine an image you fine pleasant focus on it and do deep breathing.
    Frank proved this to me the other day after one of our runs we sometimes ck our blood pressure we were both a little high so he so we made a bet to see if we could relax our selves enough to lower it. Frank started first closed his eyes did his deep breathing for just a min rechecked his blood pressure and it dropped to 117/70. Now my turn it worked but didn’t drop as low as Franks but it did drop.

  13. Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto

    Congratulations. Elicit the relaxation response is a public health issue, but unfortunately still very little known in academic circles and especially in the frontline of health services. Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto. Sao Paulo – Brazil.

  14. Sanmay Patel

    thanks for this nice post. we have to learn relaxation, because in today’s lifestyle, stress will have to come.. so nice share..

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  15. Jeff Vinick

    My question revolves around the lasting effects vs. the temporary effects of The Relaxation Response. While the time spent eliciting the response relieves current stress, are there lasting effects? Does one react differently to stress that occurs at some later point in the day-effectively counteracting the fight or fight response, or does a person have to hide away for another 10 minutes to elicit the response whenever a stressful situation arises?


    • Ann MacDonald
      Ann MacDonald

      Hi Mr. Vinick,

      Thanks for writing.

      Dr. Herb Benson, originator of the relaxation response, advises that people practice it on a regular basis. The sad reality of life is that we encounter situations provoking a “fight or flight” response all the time — and so we need to constantly elicit the relaxation response. Dr. Benson recommends doing “mini-relaxation” responses throughout the day.

      Best wishes –

  16. mind power school dude

    Sorry, just found another yoga-type exercise that sounds like a good stress reducing ritual.

    Basically, this is a simple back bend. Lay on the floor, place your hands above your head flat on the floor, and raise your back into an arched position.

    Would love to hear from readers who found this useful.

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  17. mind power school dude

    Here is a great little yoga exercise designed to reduce stress from this most informative site amongst other good advice.

    Still sitting twist to the right with an exhalation, hold for 30 seconds, then twist to the left for 30 seconds. Repeat three times to each side, each time holding for 30 seconds.

    Hope this of some help to your readers.

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  18. Cher

    Thank you for a great informative article, i believe many people take this issue for granted and really do not realize what stress is doing to their health. With regard to meditation, i am overjoyed that more and more people are using meditation, and thankfully the medical industry is recommending it for health benefits.Thanks again for a great article i have posted to my site.

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  19. Mark

    Interesting, I read a lot of self-improvement books from authors such as Robert Collier and Og Mandino; I have found these to keep reason in perspective- so that I respond rationally in situations. I also keep a self-help blog called Elevated Continuum. This research seems interesting from the lecture you attended, I’ll look for their books.

  20. Sana

    Meditation does help and not just with anxiety or depression. It just calms down my whole body I just feel healthier after even 10 minutes of meditation.

    The only difficulty is, who has the time to stop and breathe…

  21. Dr. Howard Knudsen

    As doctor of physical therapy I believe the ‘relaxation response’ is not used enough in the health care professions and I congratulate Ann MacDonald for taking the time to tell us about her experience. When working with patients with persistent pain from chronic conditions, I believe it should be the first method that a patient learns, so they may apply these techniques at home. I have to say that I sometimes find it difficult to convince my patients that mediation can lead to a better recovery of their painful condition. Why? Because they have become filled with anxiety about their diagnoses, x-rays, and MRIs. I had one patient who would carry around a photocopy of an MRI of her lumbar spine so she could share it with everyone she met. The truth is that many physicians use MRIs because they don’t want to be sued and (in the case of surgeons) to help convince patients they need surgery. But, something should be said about the affect on a patient’s stress level that these medical opinions produce. Sometimes they can be extremely detrimental to a patient’s health because they cause a stress response. Nevertheless, after experiencing the affects of the relaxation response on my own chronic back pain I have spent the last few years investigating how it works. The evidence seems to point to its ability to neutralize your pain sensitivity. While in contrast, stress in almost any form may increase your pain sensitivity. I have been fortunate enough to utilize the relaxation response to neutralize my pain sensitivity (I had a 23-year history of chronic back pain before it healed naturally). And, I have also seen natural self-healing occur in patients that were practically “left to die” because there was nothing else that could be done medically. These patients are overcome with anxiety (the stress response) and this feeds the chronic pain cycle. Again, thank you for spreading the word about the relaxation response!

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  22. John Kennedy

    I agree, this just sounds like another meditation type of treatment

  23. Ron Johnson

    Relaxation response seems like another term for meditation.

  24. Sunny

    I definitely agree about the stress factor affecting the day to day life. What are your thoughts about relaxation and reduce stress products?

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