- Using the relaxation response to reduce stress – Harvard Health Blog – Harvard Health Publishing
- Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response
- The Relaxation Response
- How To Trigger Your Relaxation Response
- Triggering the Relaxation Response
- Decreased stress equals increased peace
- Stress management and DNA
- Study identifies genes, pathways altered during relaxation response practice
- How To Engage The Relaxation Response For Stress-Regulation
- Why Does The Relaxation Response Matter For Our Health?
- Benefits Of The Relaxation Response
- How To Trigger The Relaxation Response
- Focus On Your Breath
- Controlled Breathing Techniques
- Body Scan Meditations
- Repetitive Phrases, Prayer Or Mantra
- Yoga Nidra
- Practice Healthy Boundaries With Stressful Situations
Using the relaxation response to reduce stress – Harvard Health Blog – Harvard Health Publishing
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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!
Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response
The term “Relaxation Response” was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. The response is defined as your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.
In his book, The Relaxation Response, Dr. Benson describes the scientific benefits of relaxation, explaining that regular practice of the Relaxation Response can be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders.
Benson can be largely credited for demystifying meditation and helping to bring it into the mainstream, by renaming meditation the “Relaxation Response.
” His studies in the 1960s and 1970s were able to show that meditation promotes better health, especially in individuals with hypertension.
People who meditate regularly enjoy lower stress levels, increased wellbeing, and even were able to reduce their blood pressure levels and resting heart rate.
The Relaxation Response is essentially the opposite reaction to the “fight or flight” response. According to Dr. Benson, using the Relaxation Response is beneficial, as it counteracts the physiological effects of stress and the fight or flight response.
The fight-or-flight stress response occurs naturally when we perceive that we are under excessive pressure, and it is designed to protect us from bodily harm.
Our sympathetic nervous system becomes immediately engaged in creating a number of physiological changes, including increased metabolism, blood pressure, heart and breathing rate, dilation of pupils, constriction of our blood vessels, all of which work to enable us to fight or flee from a stressful or dangerous situation.
It is common for individuals experiencing the fight-or-flight response to describe uncomfortable physiological changes muscle tension, headache, upset stomach, racing heartbeat, and shallow breathing.
The fight-or-flight response can become harmful when elicited frequently.
When high levels of stress hormones are secreted often, they can contribute to a number of stress-related medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, GI diseases, adrenal fatigue, and more.
The Relaxation Response is a helpful way to turn off the fight-or-flight response and bring the body back to pre-stress levels. Dr.
Benson describes the Relaxation Response as a physical state of deep relaxation which engages the other part of our nervous system—the parasympathetic nervous system.
Research has shown that regular use of the Relaxation Response can help any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety disorders, and others.
There are many methods to elicit the Relaxation Response including visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, energy healing, acupuncture, massage, breathing techniques, prayer, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, and yoga. True relaxation can also be achieved by removing yourself from everyday thought and by choosing a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or by focusing on your breathing.
According to Dr. Benson, one of the most valuable things we can do in life is to learn deep relaxation — making an effort to spend some time every day quieting our minds to create inner peace and better health. This is also true with healing.
During the energy healing process, the patient is able to relax, quiet their mind, and experience calming effects while the healer does his or her work. Energy healing patients have experienced profound results, not un the results seen in Dr.
Learning the Relaxation Response is a great skill that can help us to be better equipped to deal with life's unexpected stressors, heal ourselves, and achieve better health.
The best time to practice the Relaxation Response is first thing in the morning for 10 to 20 minutes. Practicing just once or twice daily can be enough to counteract the stress response and bring about deep relaxation and inner peace.
Following is the Relaxation Response technique taken directly from Dr. Herbert Benson's book, The Relaxation Response.
Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. [Relax your tongue—and thoughts will cease.]
- Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word “one”* silently to yourself. For example, breathe in, and then out, and say “one”*, in and out, and repeat “one.”* Breathe easily and naturally.
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
- Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.”*
- With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.
*Choose any soothing, mellifluous sounding word, preferably with no meaning or association, to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts.
The Relaxation Response
news article 2019-02-28 wellness wellness;mind-body-medicine;heart-health;vascular-and-stroke
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one every three American adults has high blood pressure.
Add in psychological stress factors (work-life balance, job security, interpersonal struggles, or anything else that keeps us up at night) and it's no wonder that conditions heart disease and stroke are among the leading causes of death for men and women in the country.
Between unhealthy eating patterns, lack of sleep, and, in some cases, substance use, the behaviors many people turn to mitigate stress in the short term can not only exacerbate the feeling in the long term, but increase blood pressure. But there is a practice you can adopt to relieve stress and ease tension without threatening heart health: the relaxation response.
Developed by Herbert Benson, MD, originally at Harvard Medical school and now at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, the relaxation response is a six-step technique designed to quiet your mind and calm your body in times of stress.
The technique has been tested extensively and written up in Dr. Benson's book, “The Relaxation Response.” Because it requires no additional tools, it can be used nearly anywhere and at any time. For best results, try the relaxation response once or twice a day for 10-20 minutes.
With practice, you'll find that the response comes with less and less effort.
- Step 1: Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Step 2: Close your eyes.
- Step 3: Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep each muscle relaxed.
- Step 4: Breathe easily and naturally through your nose, becoming mindful of each breath as you do.
- Step 5: As you breathe out, say the word “one” silently to yourself.
- Step 6: Continue this process for 10-20 minutes, keeping your eyes gently closed. (You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm.) When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes.
- Don't worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation; maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation at its own pace
- Distracting thoughts may come to your mind as you work through the process. Instead of dwelling on them, try to let them pass and return to repeating “one” as you breathe out
- Avoid practicing the relaxation response within two hours after any meal, as it may make you tired
This article originally appeared on MGHBeFit.com, an employee wellness program sponsored by MGH Nutrition and Food Services.
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How To Trigger Your Relaxation Response
Meditation can be difficult for beginners, but there are ways to make it simple.
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The counterpart to the fight-or-flight response, the relaxation response, occurs when the body is no longer in perceived danger, and the autonomic nervous system functioning returns to normal. Simply put, the relaxation response is the opposite of your body's stress response—your “off switch” to your body's tendency toward fight-or-flight.
During the relaxation response, the body moves toward a state of physiological relaxation, where blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning, and hormonal levels return to normal levels.
The fight-or-flight state is one of physiological arousal, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, slowed digestive functioning, increased blood flow to the extremities, increased release of hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and other responses preparing the body to protect itself from perceived danger or stress.
During acute stress, the fight-or-fight response occurs naturally. This response worked well for us in our ancient humanoid history, when the stress response was triggered as a means of survival in order to flee from fast-moving physical threats predators.
However, in modern times, the fight-or-flight response is triggered multiple times throughout the day due to a wide range of stressors, many of which are probably more situational than they are survival.
As such, we may find ourselves in a prolonged state of fight-or-flight, which overtaxes the nervous system and is potentially detrimental to our well-being.
For example, in times of chronic stress, the body is in a constant state of physiological arousal over perceived threats that are numerous and not life-threatening, and the body's relaxation response doesn't always have time to activate before the next stressor occurs.
This can lead to decreased immunity and increases in negative emotional consequences anxiety and burnout.
When our bodies are in that chronic stress state, people start getting sick and perhaps experiencing other health issues, including high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, and other problems.
In times of stress, the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) can be induced through breathing exercises and other mindfulness techniques that relax your body and/or your mind. (If you can relax both simultaneously, that's even better.)
The following are some of the most effective and convenient strategies for inducing the relaxation response in your body if you're unable to experience it automatically. Practice these, and you'll find it easier to relax during times of stress and minimize the amount of time your body spends in its stress response.
Meditation is a powerhouse of a stress reliever because it works well for calming body and mind, and helps you to build resilience over time. Some people find it difficult to get the hang of meditation at first, but trying different meditation techniques and maintaining realistic expectations can prove helpful.
Stress relief breathing can be highly effective in calming the body as well, as it helps stimulate the vagus nerve which is essential for PNS regulation.
Breathing exercises are highly recommended because they can work to calm the body at any time and place, even in the middle of stressful situations that are ongoing. There are different types of breathing exercises to practice, so try a few.
Diaphragmatic breathing is one approach that can be particularly beneficial. This type of deep breathing is sometimes referred to as belly breathing and is done by contracting the diaphragm when taking in each breath.
These exercises involve tensing and relaxing different groups of muscles in your body until it becomes more natural to find and remain in a state of physical relaxation. This technique takes a little time and practice, but eventually, you should find yourself able to fully relax your body in a few minutes, if not a matter of seconds.
You may not be surprised to hear that yoga is a wonderful practice to promote relaxation and well-being. This modality utilizes the breath and movement to relax and stabilize the mind and invite more ease into the body.
If you're new to yoga it's recommended you begin your practice under the tutelage of a certified instructor, but there are also simple, gentle poses that can be practiced at home, and even some you can do at your desk.
We strongly encourage you to make some of these techniques a regular part of your life.
There are also other techniques such as guided imagery and visualization that can be used to reduce stress and increase relaxation.
When you regularly practice these techniques, your body may become more adept at reversing its own stress response when necessary, so you don't remain in a state of stress for an unhealthy length of time.
These techniques may feel awkward or as if they are not working at the beginning. any behavioral change, or anything new for that matter, it takes time and practice to begin seeing results, so be patient.
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Ein-Dor T. Facing danger: how do people behave in times of need? The case of adult attachment styles. Front Psychol. 2014;5:1452. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01452
Nakao M. Heart rate variability and perceived stress as measurements of relaxation response. J Clin Med. 2019;8(10):1704. doi:10.3390/jcm8101704
Ranabir S, Reetu K. Stress and hormones. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011;15(1):18–22. doi:10.4103/2230-8210.77573
Goldstein DS. Adrenal responses to stress. Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2010;30(8):1433–1440. doi:10.1007/s10571-010-9606-9
Chin MS, Kales SN. Understanding mind-body disciplines: A pilot study of paced breathing and dynamic muscle contraction on autonomic nervous system reactivity. Stress Health. 2019;35(4):542-548.
Steinhubl SR, Wineinger NE, Patel S, et al. Cardiovascular and nervous system changes during meditation. Front Hum Neurosci. 2015;9:145. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00145
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Triggering the Relaxation Response
We are living in a time where modern science is making incredible advances in medicine. However, the number of people with chronic illnesses is rapidly increasing.
The World Health Organisation has projected that by the year 2020, chronic diseases will account for almost three quarters of deaths worldwide. A chronic illness is a long-lasting condition with persistent effects.
It cannot be prevented by vaccines or cured by medication, nor does it just disappear. Various studies have shown that the stress epidemic in our society is a major contributor to chronic illness.
Stress is described as a feeling of being worried, overwhelmed or run-down. In response to stress, our bodies release extra cortisol – a hormone that regulates our fight or flight response. Cortisol serves the body well by replenishing energy reserves after periods of intense activity.
This function is supposed to be short-lived, just long enough to deal with the perceived threat. However, chronic stress occurs in our modern lives in response to everyday stressors as well as traumatic events, and creates an allostatic load.
The allostatic load is the wear and tear on the body that grows over time when an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress and has been linked to many illnesses.
A feeling of being worried, overwhelmed or run-down
Decreased stress equals increased peace
How can we manage stress better? Our immune systems work best when relaxed. Dr Herbert Benson coined the term “The Relaxation Response”, which is essentially the opposite reaction to the stress response.
His studies in the 60s and 70s largely demystified meditation and helped to bring it into the mainstream. Meditation can break the train of everyday thinking that creates stress.
According to Dr Benson, one of the most valuable things we can do in life is to learn deep relaxation by spending time every day quieting our minds in order to create inner peace and inner health.
There are numerous approaches that elicit the relaxation response, and many have been around for thousands of years. Science now supports the benefits of meditation because these benefits are measurable, predictable, and reproducible.
MRI’s of the brain after regularly practicing mindfulness exercises have shown the reduction in size of the amygdala, a section of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events. Ongoing stress enlarges the amygdala. In animals studied under chronically stressful conditions, the amygdala remains enlarged long after the stressful conditions are removed.
The benefits of meditation are measurable, predictable, and reproducible
Stress management and DNA
Researchers from the University of Calgary have found yoga, mindfulness meditation and support group involvement to be associated with preserved telomere length.
Telomeres are the stretches of DNA that cap our chromosomes and prevent them from deteriorating. As we age our telomeres shorten.
The telomeres of the breast cancer patients in this study who received only one stress management course shortened, whereas the patients in the eight-week mindfulness program maintained their telomere length.
Modern science has shown us that the mind has the power to heal. We should use this capacity.
We don’t have to give up drugs or surgery, but rather combine ancient wisdom and modern medicine to increase our quality of life.
There are many healthy ways of expressing our emotions rather than internalising stress. While we can’t simply tell ourselves to have a particular feeling, we can influence our emotions via our thoughts.
By practicing mindfulness meditation, in which you observe your thoughts and feelings objectively and without judgement, you can perceive your stressors differently and even rewire your brain.
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Study identifies genes, pathways altered during relaxation response practice
A new study from investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) finds that elicitation of the relaxation response — a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing and prayer — produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion. Published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, the study combined advanced expression profiling and systems biology analysis to both identify genes affected by relaxation response practice and determine the potential biological relevance of those changes.
“Many studies have shown that mind/body interventions the relaxation response can reduce stress and enhance wellness in healthy individuals and counteract the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions hypertension, anxiety, diabetes and aging,” says Herbert Benson, MD, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and co-senior author of the PLOS ONE report. “Now for the first time we've identified the key physiological hubs through which these benefits might be induced.”
Towia Libermann, PhD — director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) Genomics, Proteomics, Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Center and co-senior author of the study — adds, “Some of the biological pathways we identify as being regulated by relaxation response practice are already known to play specific roles in stress, inflammation and human disease. For others, the connections are still speculative, but this study is generating new hypotheses for further investigation.”
Benson first described the relaxation response — the physiologic opposite of the fight-or-flight response — almost 40 years ago, and his team has pioneered the application of mind/body techniques to a wide range of health problems.
Studies in many peer-reviewed journals have documented how the relaxation response both alleviates symptoms of anxiety and many other disorders and also affects factors such as heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen consumption and brain activity.
In 2008, Benson and Libermann led a study finding that long-term practice of the relaxation response changed the expression of genes involved with the body's response to stress.
The current study examined changes produced during a single session of relaxation response practice, as well as those taking place over longer periods of time.
The study enrolled a group of 26 healthy adults with no experience in relaxation response practice, who then completed an 8-week relaxation response training course.
Prior to starting their training, the participants went through what was essentially a control group session — blood samples were taken before and immediately after they listened to a 20-minute health education CD and again 15 minutes later.
After completing the training course, a similar set of blood tests was taken before and after participants listened to a 20-minute CD used to elicit the relaxation response as part of daily practice.
The sets of blood tests taken before the training program were designated “novice,” and those taken after training completion were categorized as from “short-term practitioners.
” For further comparison a similar set of blood samples was taken from a group of 25 individuals with 4 to 25 years experience regularly eliciting the relaxation response through many different techniques before and after they listened to the same relaxation response CD.
Blood samples from all participants were analyzed to determine the expression of more than 22,000 genes at the different time points.
The results revealed significant changes in the expression of several important groups of genes between the novice samples and those from both the short- and long-term sets, with even more pronounced changes in the long-term practitioners.
A systems biology analysis of known interactions among the proteins produced by the affected genes revealed that pathways involved with energy metabolism, particularly the function of mitochondria, were upregulated during the relaxation response.
Pathways controlled by activation of a protein called NF-κB — known to have a prominent role in inflammation, stress, trauma and cancer — were suppressed after relaxation response elicitation. The expression of genes involved in insulin pathways was also significantly altered.
“The combination of genomics and systems biology in this study provided great insight into the key molecules and physiological gene interaction networks that might be involved in relaying beneficial effects of relaxation response in healthy subjects,” says Manoj K.
Bhasin, PhD, co-lead author of the study and co-director of the BIDMC Genomics, Proteomics, Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Center.
He notes that these insights should provide a framework for determining, on a genomic basis, whether the relaxation response will help alleviate symptoms of diseases triggered by stress and developing biomarkers that may suggest how individual patients will respond to interventions.
Benson stresses that the long-term practitioners in this study elicited the relaxation response through many different techniques — various forms of meditation, yoga or prayer — but those differences were not reflected in the gene expression patterns. “People have been engaging in these practices for thousands of years, and our finding of this unity of function on a basic-science, genomic level gives greater credibililty to what some have called 'new age medicine,' ” he says.
Libermann says, “While this and our previous studies focused on healthy participants, we currently are studying how the genomic changes induced by mind/body interventions affect pathways involved in hypertension, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
We have also started a study — a collaborative undertaking between the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center — in patients with precursor forms of multiple myeloma, a condition known to involve activation of NF-κB pathways.”
Benson is a professor of Medicine, and Libermann an associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. In addition to Bhasin, co-lead authors of the PLOS ONE report are Jeffery Dusek, PhD, Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Minneapolis; and Bei-Hung Chang, ScD, Boston University School of Public Health.
Additional co-authors are John Denninger, MD, PhD, and Gregory Fricchione, MD, Benson-Henry Institute; and Marie Joseph, BIDMC Genomics and Proteomics Center.
The study was supported by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grants H75 CCH123424 and R01 DP000339, by National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine grant R01 AT006464-01, and by National Center for Research Resources grant M01 RR01032.
Materials provided by Massachusetts General Hospital. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
How To Engage The Relaxation Response For Stress-Regulation
Our body’s primary relaxation mechanism, a physiological process called the relaxation response, is a natural method of engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to reverse the effects of stress. The body can start it subconsciously when we feel safe and secure; even better, we can learn to engage it actively to help us regulate in times of stress, resulting in a healthier, happier body and mind.
Dr. Herbert Benson — who coined the term in the 1970s — describes the relaxation response as
“A physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress and is opposite of the fight-or-flight response.”
Triggering the relaxation response is a simple process. There are numerous benefits to working with our body’s relaxant and simple practices to bring it into everyday life.
Why Does The Relaxation Response Matter For Our Health?
Before we dive into practices to engage the relaxation response, it helps to understand how the relaxation response works to regulate physiology and reduce the effects of chronic stress.
In simple terms, the relaxation response is the exact opposite of what happens when our body gets into fight-or-flight mode as a result of perceived danger.
Being in fight-or-flight mode means that hormones cortisol and adrenaline are flowing through at a rapid rate, blood flow increases to extremities, increased heart rate, slowed digestion, and the accompanying emotions of fear, anxiety, or anger.
Fight-or-flight has a clear biological benefit. It helps us escape danger a predator or a near accident, and it gives us a “gut feeling” when something’s not right in our environment.
On the other hand, scientists have shown that chronic stress and being too busy hold negative consequences for human health. Among them are symptoms fatigue, sleep problems, chest pain headaches, gastrointestinal issues, emotional difficulties anxiety and depression, and an increased risk of disease.
Benefits Of The Relaxation Response
The immediate benefit of an induced relaxation response is that it brings our physiology down to a level that reduces our risk of feeling these symptoms. Hormone levels, blood pressure, and heart rate all decrease, and digestive functioning returns to normal. Our mind slows down and our feelings settle. We feel balanced.
According to an article published by Uniformed Services University, the relaxation response changes our body at the molecular level, too:
[The relaxation response] can affect which of your genes are activated… It can help turn ON certain genes that allow your body to use energy more efficiently – reducing cellular aging. The relaxation response can also turn OFF other genes that lead to inflammation and stress.
Moving the body into a relaxed state helps us calm down in stressful situations and contributes to long-term health.
How To Trigger The Relaxation Response
You have the power to instantly create a state of calmness — mentally and physically — when feeling stressed and overwhelmed. This ability is essential for dealing with daily stressors and combating the effects constant stress can have on our minds and bodies.
There are numerous mind-body techniques you can use to help the body engage the relaxation response and recover from stress and overwhelm. With regular practice, you’ll have a peaceful well of calm to dip into when the need arises.
Focus On Your Breath
The first technique is simply to focus on the breath. You can do this sitting or standing. Close your eyes and notice where the sensation of breathing happens in the body: your belly, your chest, or your back.
Feel yourself breathe for a few moments. Notice the quality of the breath without trying to change it. Is it fast? Ragged? Smooth? Soft? If it is difficult to keep your attention on your breath, try counting the breaths to get started. Count 1 to 10 then restart.
This technique is available to everyone regardless of the level of experience. It can become a gateway to meditation when practiced regularly.
Controlled Breathing Techniques
Once you feel familiar with watching your breath, a next-level way to enter the relaxation response is with accessible controlled breathing techniques. We will discuss two that you can learn at home.
The first technique is box breathing. It’s often used by first-responders, soldiers, and police to balance their nervous system in times of stress.
Box breathing has three steps:
- Close your eyes. Breathe in through the nose for a count of four.
- Gently hold the breath in. Count to four.
- Exhale for four.
Practice box breathing with the help of these guided meditations:
- Box Breathing For a Quick Reset Lynn Fraser Stillpoint 3:22
- 5 Minutes Of Box Breathing To Clear Your Mind Taylor Somerville 5:26
- Box Breath Rachel Fearnley 5:34
Over time, you’ll find yourself able to increase the breath counts to accommodate a longer breath pattern.
The second controlled breathing technique is called anulom vilom pranayam, or alternate nostril breathing. It is an ancient yogic breathing technique that starts the relaxation response by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.
Performing anulom vilom is similar to box breathing with the added element of switching nostrils. Switching the nostrils provides a point of focus to calm the mind.
- Sit in a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. Fold the middle three fingers of your right hand so that only the thumb and pinky are pointed outwards.
- Place the thumb of your right hand on your right nostril. Inhale through the left nostril for a count of four. Hold the breath for four.
- Release the right nostril and cover the left with the pinky. Inhale through the right nostril for a count of four. Hold for four.
- Close the right nostril, open the left, and exhale.
- Repeat, alternating open and closed nostrils.
Alternate nostril breathing can not just trigger our relaxation response, it also sets clear foundations for a more resilient and energetic day. Practice with these guided breathing meditations:
- Breath-Based Practice: Alternate Nostril Breathing Pam Muir 14:30
- Alternate Nostril Breathing Meditation Rebecca Ryan 3:46
- Breathe For A Healthy Night Sleep Ed Harrold 6:52
Discover our large free collection of breathing meditation practices that help to anchor yourself in the present and achieve a calm state of mind.
Body Scan Meditations
Body scan meditations blend focus with progressive targeted relaxation of the parts of the body. You’ll find yourself feeling deeply relaxed after this type of meditation. It is an excellent preparation for sleep.
The body scan meditations that I find most relaxing start by lying down on the bed, a yoga mat or a blanket spread out on the floor. Begin by closing the eyes and focusing the attention on the breath.
Then, bring your attention to either the feet or the head. Consciously relax that area. Move the attention to the area next to it (ankles or forehead). Relax that area.
Move the attention throughout the body until you are fully relaxed with the help of these popular body scan practices:
- Body Scan Elisha Goldstein 30:00
- Body Scan Meditation Kate James 15:21
- The Body Scan Penny McGahey 30:04
- Body Scan For Kids Mark Bertin MD 11:39
Repetitive Phrases, Prayer Or Mantra
Many religious and spiritual traditions use this technique as a method to focus the mind and bring a sense of peace. It can be particularly meaningful to choose a mantra or prayer if you have a personal attachment to a tradition.
To perform this technique, ground the body in a comfortable seated or standing position, eyes open or closed. Silently repeat the chosen phrase to yourself while bringing the entire attention to the feeling that the phrase creates in your body. Does it make you feel calm? Joyful? Sleepy?
Bringing focus within the mind can help to trigger the relaxation response.
Discover our free collection of mantra meditation practices to achieve stillness.
Yoga nidra meditation is a guided meditation performed lying down.
This meditation is an excellent tool to relax the body and mind by engaging its natural relaxation response.
Yoga nidra involves a combination of the above techniques – often breathing and body scan – plus soothing guided imagery. Scientists in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge found it also to be a powerful method to reduce anxiety in both men and women.
Experience the relaxing effects of yoga nidra with these beautiful guided practices:
- Yoga Nidra: Freedom Nature Jennifer Piercy 30:14
- Yoga Nidra For Relaxation The StillPoint 24:22
- Yoga Nidra To Reconnect & Expand Perspective Jana Roemer 49:10
Practice Healthy Boundaries With Stressful Situations
The last technique seems the most obvious but can be the most difficult: remove yourself from situations that cause you stress. You may need to set better boundaries with difficult family members or coworkers or limit your screen time to certain hours during the day.
Read more: Some stressors at your workplace might be structural and behavioral. Discover effective practices to de-stress at work and become more calm, focused and happy.
Using any or all of these methods will help you reduce the fight-or-flight response by engaging the body’s natural relaxation response. You’ll be healthier, happier, and more grounded as a result.
Read more: Regularly practicing meditation is an effective way of strengthening our ability to trigger the relaxation response. Explore when is the best time to meditate for you to feel more spacious and free.