Complete Wellness

A Place for Healing MindBodySpirit


The Relaxation Response

The affects of our mental state on our physical well-being is profound and eminently accessible to each and every one of us. It has been studied for decades. Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School is one of the pioneers in this field. He has written extensively and carried out innumerable workshops for medical professionals and patients. And I boiled this information down to a quick and dirty, everyday practice that anyone can learn in minutes. I bet I introduce this exercise to people five times a week if not more.

The idea of the Relaxation Response is to utilize your brains own chemical factory to bathe your body in calming chemicals. We are all very familiar with the effect of these kinds of chemical baths our brains can produce. We all know how our bodies react when we recount a scary story. For example, if you are almost in an accident driving home, and later you tell someone about it, you feel your heart race and your stomach knot and your knees go weak. Basically, your brain goes all the way down to your toes. There literally are neuro-receptors in your whole body.

Your brain does not know the difference between past, present and future once you get past your eyeballs. If you worry about something that might happen, or remember something that happened in the past, your brain releases the same chemicals it would if that thing were happening at that moment. That goes for the stress chemicals of some bad event or the soothing chemicals of a pleasant event.

The Relaxation Response utilizes this very accessible reaction. It gives you a tool you can use for the rest of your life. You have it at your disposal at all times. You are installing a big button to the feel-good-chemical factory and hard-wiring it in.

You start by picking a phrase that is inherently soothing to you. It might be a line from a prayer or a poem or an affirmation. It might be something your mother said to you to calm you as a child, or something you would say to a child or pet. “Our Father who art in heaven..”, “Surely the universe is unfolding as it should….” , “Shanti, Shanti, Ohm shanti.”, “Shema Yisrael Adonai…”, “Everything is going to be just fine.” It can be of whatever derivation, in whatever language, as long as it makes you feel good just to say it.
You repeat that phrase in an endless loop, out loud or to yourself, over and over and over again.

(One woman suggested the phrase “My mother-in-law is dead.” But I prompted her that that wasn’t quite the energy we were going for. I encouraged her to find a more positive phrase to fill her consciousness with.)

Once you get that voice in your head, you need to start the visual part. Imagine yourself in the most peaceful place you can think of. It might be a beach, or a mountainside, or a field of wildflowers on a bright sunny day. You could even grow a pair of beautiful wings and be flying over the clouds. You can imagine anything that would just feel so “Ahhhhh.”. You can embellish the scene with any details you want; scent, sounds, the way the sand feels, or the sun on your skin.

When your mind lets in one of your worries or troubles, you can acknowledge it, and usher it on out. Then you need to fill the crack where that snuck in with more details; the way the snow is glinting in the sunshine, the babbling of the brook or the wind in the trees. Most people are really not good at not thinking. It takes Tibetan monks years to master thinking of nothing. What we can do is think of peaceful, pleasant things.

You might feel like you’re not good at this sort of thing. You may feel stupid doing this the first twenty times you try it. You just keep trying it for five minutes (Dr. Benson recommends ten minutes, but that’s just not realistic in our fast-paced lives sometimes.) You have to find a time when you can sit for five (to ten) minutes, comfortably, when you’re not hungry, not cold, you don’t have to pee, and your cell phone isn’t in your ear. Start your phrase, then your visualization. It’s like any other exercise. The more you do it the easier it gets.

A great time to practice this is after exercise. When your body is nice and warm and has all those good endorphins going, and your muscles are supple is the perfect time for you to build the cellular memory of relaxation. When you’re done exercising and stretching, get comfortable, sitting up, reclining or lying down. Do your relaxation technique. You are then creating a physical memory, a body memory of those feelings, and tying then to your phrase and visualization. It’s brilliant. And it feels so good.

When you get good at it, after a few weeks of twice daily practice, you will be able to feel that good anytime. It’s great for the middle of the night, if you can’t get to sleep or get back to sleep because your mind is just racing. You can use this technique to get rest even if you’re not sleeping. It really takes the pressure off and let’s the fact that you’re not sleeping be one less thing to worry about. 

The Relaxation Response has been practiced and studied at Harvard Medical School for decades. It has been shown in study after study to decrease blood pressure and heart and respiratory rates. It decreases the incidence of migraine headaches, ulcers, and asthma flairs. Regardless of the scientific statistics, anyone who does it can tell that it is good for the body. You know I’m a big proponent of common sense and listening to (and believing) your bodies signals. So believe it when this feels so good for you. 

Your mind has profound impact on your body, and vice versa. This is one way that you can use this deep powerful medicine that your brain makes. It is immediately available to you at all times. I’m not going to say that it’s going to make you feel fabulous while you’re in the ER family room and your loved one is seriously ill, but it can allow you to breathe when you might otherwise not feel able to.

We are not always in charge of our bodies physiologic responses. When you say something embarrassing, you blush. The more you don’t want to, the pinker you get. When people who faint get that response started, there’s no stopping it. They just have to lie down till it passes. It’s like an allergic reaction. It’s kind of a domino affect. Once they start to go, it continues till they all fall down. The same can happen in panic and anxiety. Being really good at your relaxation practice can really dampen that but might not stop it all together. You have to keep your expectations flexible and appreciate whatever help it gives to you.




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