I just started reading Dr. Herbert Benson’s book, Relaxation Revolution. I’ve been excited about Benson’s work for a while now and first wrote about him in an earlier post, Meditation and the Relaxation Response. In the 1970s, Benson started researching the physiological changes that happen during meditation and these changes are collectively known as the relaxation response.
The relaxation response is the opposite phenomenon to the stress response, more commonly known as fight or flight. Research has shown a multitude of benefits that arise from the relaxation response including reduced pain, reduced hypertension (high blood pressure), improved sleep and reduced anxiety.
What I was most surprised to learn in reading Relaxation Revolution is that the relaxation response can change gene expression. If you have a gene that would predispose you to a certain condition, such as cancer, you can affect your internal environment through consistent practice of the relaxation response to reduce the chances of that gene expressing its particular behavior. If research continues to show this, it could mean a radical shift in health care and how we approach healing.
Here is a link to Dr. Benson’s instructions on how to elicit the relaxation response. Basically you are practicing concentration – giving the mind a simple task like repeating one or two words over and over – and letting all other thoughts dissipate. In a state of quiet concentration, the brain sends signals to the body that say, “everything is okay; we can relax; all is well.” The body then lowers its heart rate, relaxes muscle tension, and reduces production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
This is significant in regards to any need for healing. The relaxation response can support the immune system simply by turning off the stress response. Consistent practice will program a new message to the body, all is well. Medical researchers continue to investigate this profound shift in mind-body medicine in order deepen our understanding of its healing potential.