Practice the relaxation response
By Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D.
According to the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 85 percent of the reasons for visiting a physician are “stress related.” When actually needed (in the presence of an actual threat), your stress response is extremely valuable. If it goes off when there is no actual threat, only an imagined one, your stress response becomes harmful to body balance. If your stress response is prolonged, it does damage to almost every physiological event in your body.
The opposite of the stress response is the “relaxation response.” According to the Harvard researcher and physician, Herbert Benson, M.D., there are many benefits to learning how to manage your relaxation response.
Relax, there are benefits
• Reduces anxiety and its accompanying physical symptoms.
• Calms your mind, thereby enhancing mental concentration and efficiency.
• Calms muscular and nervous tension.
• When practiced regularly, it can lower your blood pressure and prevent chronic high blood pressure.
• Increases your emotional control.
• Delivers more oxygen to your cells.
• Guards against insomnia.
• Promotes overall good health.
Controlling your breath is the best way to solicit and strengthen your relaxation response. Breathing is the most basic function of human life. Life begins with the first breath in and ends with the last breath out. Between those two breaths, the manner in which we breathe critically affects how we live, how we feel, how healthy we are and how prone we are to illness. The balance of the body, mind and emotions can be clearly seen in your breath pattern.
A guide to practice
Here are six guidelines for practicing the relaxation response beginning with your breathing.
1. Sit or lie down in a position where your back is straight, legs uncrossed, feet on the floor and your hands and arms are supported.
2. Breathe in (inhale) through your nose as you push your abdominal muscles (“tummy”) out (or up if you are lying down).
3. Breathe out (exhale) through your mouth (lips and jaw slightly open and relaxed) by pulling your “tummy muscles” back toward your spine.
4. Notice the brief pause in your breath pattern at the end of the inhale just before you begin the exhale. Notice it again as your breath ends the exhale and begins to turn around to the inhale. Consciously extend these pauses a little bit. Focus your attention on those pauses. Continue these long, slow (sighing) breaths for 20-30 cycles.
5. Place your attention on each muscle group in your body. Beginning with the feet, notice any tension there. Move up to the calf muscles and see if they are tense in any way. Continue attending to the muscle groups in your thighs, hips, buttocks, abdomen, lower back, chest, upper back, shoulders, neck, biceps, forearms, hands and fingers, and facial muscles. Whenever you discover muscular tension, increase it for one breath cycle. Release that tension during the next breath cycle.
6. Finally, focus your mind on a single image or word. Imagine yourself lying on a warm beach or floating on a cloud or watching a beautiful sunset. With each exhale, whisper aloud your chosen word or phrase (e.g. “peace” or “love” or “I am completely relaxed and at peace”). Whenever your thoughts “wander” or unwanted thoughts intrude, refocus your breath on the pauses in your breathing followed by a return to your word or phrase.
If you practice the above on a regular basis, you just might reduce your reasons for visiting a physician by 85 percent!
Dr. Thomas is a licensed psychologist, author, speaker, and life coach from Wellington, Colo. He serves on the faculty of the International University of Professional Studies.