What is the relaxation response?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’m under a lot of stress, and I’d like to learn more about the “relaxation response.” What is it? How can I achieve it?

DEAR READER:

At Harvard Medical School, we do a lot of traditional “Western” scientific research. But we also have a long history of studying “Eastern” concepts of how the body works, disease and treatment. In the late 1970s, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson conducted research into the health hazards of stress — and the body’s potential to heal itself. One antidote to stress that Dr. Benson studied was the relaxation response.

To understand the relaxation response, it helps to know how your body responds to stress. Let’s say you see a menacing dog approach. Instantly, your senses sharpen, your muscles tighten, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises and your breathing quickens. (I’ve put an illustration of the body’s stress response on my, below.)

In the short term, the stress response can be very helpful: It prepares you to fight or to flee danger. And the stress response doesn’t help only in situations of life or death. At work, for example, stress can improve your performance in the face of a tight deadline.

In the long term, however, stress contributes to a number of health problems. It elevates blood pressure and makes your body less able to fight off infection and disease.

The relaxation response counters the stress response. Heartbeat and breathing slow down. The body uses less oxygen, and blood flows more easily through the arteries and veins.

Many techniques may be used to elicit the relaxation response. These include:

  • BREATH FOCUS. You breathe slowly and deeply while disengaging your mind from distracting thoughts and sensations.
  • BODY SCAN. You focus on one part of the body or group of muscles at a time and release any tension you feel there.
  • GUIDED IMAGERY. You use pleasing mental images to help you relax and focus.
  • MINDFULNESS MEDITATION. You breathe deeply while staying in the moment. You deliberately focus on thoughts and sensations that arise during the meditation session.
  • YOGA, TAI CHI OR QIGONG. You breathe rhythmically while moving through a series of postures or flowing movements.
  • REPETITIVE PRAYER. You use a short prayer to help enhance breath focus.

A mind-body program, relaxation response CD, or meditation or yoga classes may help you to learn these techniques.

When I joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School, I had a slightly older colleague who was particularly brilliant and very intense. He commanded respect for his intellect, but it was tough to warm up to him. As a result, people didn’t always listen to what he had to say. It was their loss, and his.

About a year after I first met him, I was astonished to learn that he had started practicing the relaxation response in his office every afternoon. Some said his wife had suggested it. Within a few months, he had become one of our most revered colleagues. It was our gain, and his.

The stress response

SC0913-1

Collectively, the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands make up the HPA axis, which plays a pivotal role in triggering the stress response. The hypothalamus sends a chemical messenger (corticotropin-releasing factor, or CRF) to the nearby pituitary gland, which then releases its own chemical messenger (adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH) into the bloodstream (A). ACTH travels to the adrenal glands, which respond by releasing a number of stress hormones into the bloodstream (B).

At the same time, the sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones, too (not shown). The combined effects of these hormones are widespread, as this illustration reveals. Senses become sharper, muscles tighten, the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, and breathing quickens. All of this prepares you to fight or flee in the face of danger.