Meditation is a simple technique that, if practiced for as few as 10 minutes each day, can help you control stress, decrease anxiety, improve cardiovascular health, and achieve a greater capacity for relaxation.
Although meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, the meditative technique called the “relaxation response” was pioneered in the U.S. by Harvard doctor Herbert Benson in the 1970s. The technique has gained acceptance by physicians and therapists worldwide as a means of relieving symptoms of conditions ranging from cancer to AIDS.
When our bodies are exposed to a sudden stress or threat, we respond with a characteristic “fight or flight” response. The ”adrenaline rush” we experience is a result of the release of the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. They cause an increase in blood pressure and pulse rate, faster breathing, and increased blood flow to the muscles.
The relaxation response is a technique designed to elicit the opposite bodily reaction from the “fight or flight” response — a state of deep relaxation in which our breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure, and metabolism are decreased. Training our bodies on a daily basis to achieve this state of relaxation can lead to enhanced mood, lower blood pressure, improved digestion, and a reduction of everyday stress.
The relaxation response technique consists of the silent repetition of a word, sound, or phrase — perhaps one that has special meaning to you — while sitting quietly with a good posture and eyes closed for 10 to 20 minutes. This should be done in a quiet place free of distractions. Sitting is preferred to lying down in order to avoid falling asleep. Relax your muscles starting with the feet and progressing up to your face. Breathe though your nose in a free and natural way.
During a meditation session, intruding worries or thoughts should be ignored or dismissed to the best of your ability by focusing on the sound, word or phrase. It’s OK to open your eyes to look at a clock while you are practicing, but do not set an alarm. When you have finished, remain seated, first with your eyes closed and then with your eyes open, and gradually allow your thoughts to return to everyday reality.
The technique requires some practice and may be difficult at first, but over time almost anyone can learn to achieve the desired state of relaxation. In his book The Relaxation Response (published in 1975 and reissued in 2000), Benson recommends practicing the technique once or twice a day. He recommends not practicing the relaxation response within two hours after eating a meal, because the digestive process may interfere with the technique.
The relaxation response can also be elicited through other meditative and relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation.
No matter how the relaxation state is achieved, the physical and emotional consequences of stress can be reduced through regular practice.