The counterpart to the fight-or-flight response, the Relaxation Response, occurs when the body is not any longer in perceived danger, and therefore the autonomic nervous system functioning returns to normal.
Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital, set out to find a way to lower blood pressure naturally using biofeedback principles. His first experiments were with animals the success of which attracted students of meditation who suggested to him that they could lower their blood pressure using their meditation practice. Reluctant at first to get involved with meditation, Benson finally set up a number of experiments with meditators and fitted them with measurement devices to record changes in a number of physiological functions. He found dramatic changes as people shifted from everyday thinking to a meditative state, changes which occurred quickly.
His results included a noticeable drop in the percentage of oxygen consumed whilst meditating, slower breathing, a drop in lactate circulating in the blood stream (high levels of circulating lactate have been associated with disquiet and anxiety) and slower brainwave patterns. Benson dubbed the body’s ability to regulate its own physiology, the relaxation response.
Benson found that there were other practices apart from meditation that invoked the relaxation response. These included yoga, autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation, hypnosis and of course self-hypnosis.
Benson put together a simple exercise to invoke the relaxation response. The exercise has two parts:
- repetition of a word, phrase, sound, or prayer
- passive disregard of intruding thoughts
Practicing Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response exercise starts with progressively relaxing each muscle in the body from the feet to the head. Whilst breathing naturally, you repeat your chosen word, phrase or prayer on the out breath and continue in this way for between 10 and 20 minutes. When you have finished you simply open your eyes and bring yourself back to the room and get on with your day.
Benson suggests that benefits are gained by carrying out this exercise once or twice a day.