The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Let's Not Get Panicky

A Drug-Free Prescriptive to Reduce Stress

Everybody has the power to create a state of mental and physical calmness on demand. Athletes learn to have grace under pressure by training their minds and bodies to counter-balance physiological changes that trigger the 'fight-or-flight' stress response and cause them to fumble or choke. You can do this in your daily life by using THE RELAXATION RESPONSE technique.

The 'relaxation response' has two basic steps that are found in 'meditation' practices in almost every culture. The first is the repetition of a sound, word, phrase, prayer, or movement; the second is a passive disregard of everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and the return to your repetition.

In this entry I will share the insights of the pioneer of mind/body medicine, Herbert Benson, MD, of the Benson-Herbert Institute in Boston. In the 1970s, my father was the chief of neurosurgery at Harvard's Beth Israel Hospital and was a colleague of Herbert Benson, who was a cardiologist at the same institution.  Benson's idea that there was a link between stress and physical health was radical at the time and a hotly debated dinner-party topic amongst medical professionals in my household when I was growing up. At the time, the idea that human beings could create physiological changes in their bodies through things like meditation, chanting and 'visualization' seemed like a far-fetched notion. Today these ideas are widely accepted by medical professionals.       

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Daily practice of the relaxation response has been shown to improve a wide range of medical problems that are caused, or made worse, by stress. The Benson-Henry Institute treats patients using a 'three-legged' approach. Pharmaceuticals are the first leg, surgery and medical procedures are the second leg, and 'self-care' is the third leg.

Herbert Benson believes that because at least 60% of all doctor visits are due to stress related causes that the 'self-care' component that includes mind/body interactions, nutrition, exercise and spirituality is a vital component of effective health care. Clinical studies have revealed that the relaxation response -- which is at the core of the Benson-Henry method to "self-care" --  improves: hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, pain, insomnia, allergies, PMS,  menopause symptoms, infertility and also boosts your immune system.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MIND/BODY MEDICINE

Dr. Benson's interest in the mind/body connection began when he noticed that the actual stress of going for a regular check-up caused blood pressure levels of his patients to spike while they were in his office. He and his associates at Harvard Medical School decided to test his hypothesis of stress-induced hypertension by using reward conditioning techniques to train monkeys to increase or decrease blood pressure based on certain behaviors. His team discovered that monkeys who were "rewarded" for higher blood pressure actually created habitual behaviors that led to hypertension.

While these animal experiments were underway, Dr. Benson was approached by practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM) --which had gained mainstream popularity in the 1960s due to interest shown by the Beatles--asking him to study their blood pressure as a control group. He agreed to do clinical scientific experiments on these practitioners to see if he could validate their claims in a laboratory setting. 

As the TM practitioners sat quietly for 20 minutes and then actually meditated for 20 minutes - Dr. Benson and his colleague Robert Keith Wallace measured their: blood pressure, metabolism, brain waves, rate of breathing and metabolism. When they compared the results they were astounded at what the discovered. The simple act of changing their thought patterns and using meditative techniques had allowed the subjects to: slow brain waves, decrease heart rate, metabolism, rate of breathing and blood pressure.  

The ability to counter-balance the human stress response on demand had never before been scientifically validated. Herbert Benson coined the term the 'relaxation response', which he viewed as being the polar opposite to the commonly known 'fight-or-flight' response discovered by Harvard physiologist Walter B. Cannon in the early 1900's.

The relaxation response was viewed as a physiological response that had evolved to help us regain homeostasis after a life-threatening or stressful experience. The relaxation response is something that you can consciously use to alter your physical and emotional responses to stress and anxiety without medications.

HOW-TO TRIGGER THE RELAXATION RESPONSE

Dr. Benson has discovered that the relaxation response can be elicited using any variety of meditative techniques. There are many, many ways to achieve this response and you should choose one that fits your personality and works best for you so that you will stick with it. 

A few that Dr. Benson recommends are things such as deep "diaphragmatic" breathing, repetitive prayer, chi gong, tai chi, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, rhythmic aerobic exercise, as well as things like knitting.

Below is a simple 10-step Relaxation Response technique taught at the Benson-Henry Institute:

1. Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system, such as "one," "peace," "The Lord is my shepherd," "Hail Mary full of grace," or "shalom."

2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.

3. Close your eyes.

4. Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck.

5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.

6. Assume a passive attitude. Don't worry about how well you're doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, "Oh well," and gently return to your repetition.

7. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.

8. Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.

9. Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner.

10. Regular elicitation of the relaxation response has been scientifically proven to be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders. In fact, to the extent that any disease is caused or made worse by stress, the relaxation response can help.

Other techniques for eliciting the relaxation response advocated by the Benson-Henry Institute are:

  • Breath focus
  • Repetitive physical exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Repetitive prayer
  • Imagery
  • Any mindfulness meditation

I will explore these methods in future blogs. In the meantime, try to begin a daily practice of the relaxation response and....START TODAY! The most effective way to reap the long-term benefits of the relaxation response is to make it a daily habit that you do at the same time and place everyday.  Not only will the regular practice of the relaxation response make you healthier and calmer in the long run, it will help you have grace under pressure in any challenge you face in your day-to-day life.

Please watch this brief BBC video featuring Dr. Benson for more insights and motivation:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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