How to Relax, Harvard Health

Using the relaxation response to reduce stress

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.