What is the relaxation response?

William B. Salt II., MD
Breathing is a key element in eliciting the “relaxation response” described by Dr. Herbert Benson. The relaxation response is a counterbalancing mechanism to the stress response. It is not only helpful whenever used, but it can also have lasting beneficial effects when practiced regularly.

Here’s what’s involved:
  • repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity
  • passive disregard of everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind by your returning to the rhythm of repetition

Your breathing should be slow and natural while you silently say the focus
word, sound, phrase, or prayer to yourself during exhalation.
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The relaxation response came from the concentrated research of Dr. Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard University. Benson was the first medical doctor to scientifically document the physiological benefits of meditation through his studies with experienced Transcendental Meditators. The relaxation response actually changes the physical and emotional responses to stress. For instance, when you elicit the relaxation response, you’ll notice a visible decrease in your heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Recent studies have found that relaxation therapy appears to produce improved adjustment, increased medication compliance, and decreased use of medical services for those with chronic pain. 
In his studies, Herbert Benson, MD, found that there was a counterbalancing mechanism to the fight-or-flight 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. This study led to the discovery of the “relaxation response,” a physiological state of inner quiet and peacefulness, a calming of negative thoughts and worries, and a mental focus away from the pain itself.

Relaxation is defined by decreased muscle tension and respiration, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and improved circulation. The relaxation response slows down the sympathetic nervous system leading to:

• decreased heart rate
• decreased blood pressure
• decreased sweat production
• decreased oxygen consumption
• decreased catacholamine production (dopamine and norepinephrine or
  brain chemicals associated with the stress response)
• decreased cortisol production (stress hormone)

Eliciting the relaxation response in conjunction with massage or other touch therapies is an added bonus in reducing emotional stress of daily living. Once you’ve learned the physiological process of relaxing, you can summon this decrease in sympathetic arousal with many different interventions, such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, and music therapy, among many.

Some people report experiencing benefits from mind/body tools within minutes of doing them. For example, deep abdominal breathing actually alters your psychological state, making a stressful moment diminish in intensity. Think about how your respiration quickens when you are fearful. Then consider how taking a deep, slow breath brings an immediate calming effect. Likewise, music therapy can lessen your heart rate on the first experience, if you mindfully focus on the music, rhythm, and resulting inner peace.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.