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I’m just back from Boston, where I had an amazing time taking a course at Harvard Medical School’s Institute of Lifestyle Medicine.
I’m not a girl who normally gets excited about rock stars or movie stars, but when Dr. Herbert Benson stood up to give us a lecture I had to force myself not to leap out of my front-row seat and start jumping up and down.
Benson is the founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachussets General Hospital, and has been a hero of mine for many years. He is considered the father of Mind-Body Medicine, and risked ridicule from his peers (many years ago now) by being the first who dared study the physiological effects of meditation. By doing so, he discovered and described the now-famous “Relaxation Response”.
The Relaxation Response is the body’s innate antidote to the “Fight or Flight” stress response, and is our most potent weapon against the powerful, protean effects of stress on our mind and body.
According to Benson, we activate the Relaxation Response by quieting our minds. All the “What if” situations and worries that constantly parade through our minds are the primary stimulators of stress hormone release in today's world.
“What if that pain is cancer?”
“What if I get fired?”
“What if I fail?”
You know what I mean.
You can achieve this quieting of the mind and induction of the relaxation response through two basic steps: 1) repetition of a word, sound, prayer, thought or muscular activity; and 2) passively returning to the repetition when your normal thoughts start to intrude. Examples include focusing on a meditative phrase in your mind while sitting quietly, doing yoga, or even running (your brain apparently gets triggered into relaxation by the thud-thud cadence of your feet).
What I’ve just described isn’t new information, even though I really enjoyed Benson’s review of the concept. What was new to me, however, was his statement regarding the genomics, or genetic effects, of the Relaxation Response.
He referenced a recent paper published last month in the journal PLOS One, which proved the direct genomic (DNA) effects of the Relaxation Response.
Get a load of this. They found evidence of genetic changes which began a mere fifteen minutes after beginning to induce the relaxation response. Fifteen minutes! According to Benson, these changes were in key “hubs of healing”: energy metabolism, insulin secretion, and inflammatory pathways.
Benson informed us that they discovered that insulin expression was increased, the immune system was positively affected, and genes controlling cell aging were improved. Wow.
Apparently people who induce the relaxation response daily enjoy significantly greater genetic changes that reflect this regular stress-busting practice. That was all I needed to hear! (to make sure I actually do this, that is)
I spend time daily in prayer, and occasionally do yoga if I have the luxury of time or am feeling particularly stressed or creaky. Benson's lecture gave me a much-needed kick in the pants.
Stress has such a profound influence on us, causing or exacerbating an endless list of medical conditions, not to mention the emotional and mental strain. Benson claims that just 8-10 minutes a day of a Relaxation Response-inducing practice confers the majority of benefits. Seriously, what excuse could I possibly have (or could you possibly have?) to not start doing this every day?
Since I got back from the conference, I have been doing yoga every morning (because my tense muscles benefit from the stretching, and I also have a hard time sitting still to meditate). I am very proud of myself! So what are you going to do? Or what have you been already doing? I would love to know in the comment section below.
Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and happiness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and the author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You, dedicated to helping people worldwide get healthy, find happiness and enjoy more meaningful lives that they love. Dr. Biali is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching—contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.susanbiali.com for more details.
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Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2013