The stress response protects us; it is a physiological chain of events that prepares us to either run or fight in the face of danger. It activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases respiration, heart rate, serum cholesterol, blood pressure, blood flow to the muscles, and metabolism. However, there is a problem: lifestyles today present almost constant hassles that trigger the stress response, but the fight or flight options are no longer appropriate in many situations. Can you run from or fight with a deadline at work? Or a few hundred emails? Or a hectic family schedule? We get little or no time to relax and restore ourselves.
Over the long term, chronic low level stress is harmful. In fact, Lazarus, DeLongis and other researchers determined that life’s everyday hassles do more harm than major life changes. The stress response seems to have backfired.
But we also have, to counter the stress response, a relaxation response. Herbert Benson first described the relaxation response in 1975. This is also a physiological chain of events and researchers believe it may be able to protect us from the damage done by the constant triggering of the stress response.
Studies at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital have identified changes in gene expression involved in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and immune function accompanying the relaxation response. It has been proposed that the relaxation response might counteract the damaging effects of chronic stress by relaxing muscles, slowing the breathing rate, and reducing blood pressure. These results were different from sitting quietly with eyes either open or closed.
The stress response is automatic. The relaxation response is voluntary. That means we can learn to activate it at-will. Benson’s original technique listed 4 elements needed to elicit the relaxation response: a quiet environment, a mental device, a passive attitude, and a comfortable position. But further study determined that only the second and third elements are essential. Of prime importance are: the repetition of a word or phrase; and disregarding stray thoughts and returning to the repetition. This opens up the arena for triggering the relaxation response – you can do it any time, any place if you are familiar with how to do it.
There is more than one way to elicit the relaxation response including meditation, autogenic training, progressive relaxation, yoga and deep breathing. Stress management is a process that takes some time; relaxation techniques provide greater benefits with long-term practice. It is important to take the time to learn techniques that work for you and to establish the habit of practicing them regularly.
Beary, J. F., & Benson, H. (with Klemchuk, H. P.). (1974). A simple psychophsiologic technique which elicits the hypometabolic changes of the relaxation response. Psychosomatic Medicine, 36(2), 115-120. Retrieved from http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org
Benson, H. (with Klipper, M. Z.). (2001). The relaxation response. New York, NY:HarperCollins Publishers
DeLongis, A. et al. (1982). Relationship of daily hassles, uplifts, and major life events to health status. Health Psychology, 1.
Lazarus, R. S. (1984). Puzzles in the study of daily hassles. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 7.
McGreevey, S. (2013). Mind-body genomics. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from http://hms.harvard.edu/news/genetics/mind-body-genomics-5-1-13