Relax!

Relax. I tell myself to relax at least a dozen times a day, when I feel my caffeine-infused veins tense at the thought of my ever-expanding to-do list. To combat this, I decided to head to the Relaxation Response Workshop featuring Dr. Hebert Benson of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at MGH, where I learned that stress is a result of our hardwired flight or fight response.

“Fight or flight” sounds like it’s a good thing and, fundamentally, it might be. However, most of the time we are fortunate enough to be nestled in the cozy Harvard community and rarely need to flee from danger. Even less often do we have to whip out our ninja skills over essentials such as food and shelter. At least, I hope so.

At the workshop, Dr. Benson posited that without the need for fight or flight, we are still left with the physical response of stress. This response includes a surge of adrenaline, increased heart and breathing rate, and increased blood pressure. ÿTo make matters worse, if you aren’t engaging in any strenuous physical activities, the stress just builds. Talk about design fail: you’d think we’d have looked for a better product (read: more evolved bodies) by now, but it seems we haven’t. While there aren’t better products out there on the market with whom we could selectively reproduce and end this darned fight or flight response–I know, I know we might still need it–we can combat it by teaching our bodies to do exactly the opposite. Enter: the relaxation response.

Dr. Benson’s presentation was entertaining, enlightening, and–wait for it–relaxing. In his early years as a cardiologist, he realized that stress might be a factor in his patients elevated blood pressure. He decided to try to stress out squirrel monkeys (I knew there were squirrels; I knew there were monkeys; I did not know there was a combo) to see what would happen. The stress resulted in severe health issues for said mammal-hybrid. Not long after this discovery he was approached by some hippies (it was 1967), who felt that their use of transcendental meditation reduced stress and all of its unwelcome side effects. Having already put his career on the line by choosing to study squirrel monkeys at a point when it was still acceptable to do horrible things to human patients (he was always ahead of his time), he figured, “why not?” He decided to take a look at transcendental meditation.

As it turns out, the hippies were right about a few things: peace and love are a good idea, and transcendental meditation does reduce stress. In Dr. Benson’s research, he was astounded to find that every culture, religion, and ethnic group he examined had used some kind of meditation with similar steps: Focus on your breathing and repeat an image, phrase, word, or sound in your mind and, when other thoughts come disregard them. He also found that practicing meditation once or twice a day produced scientific results that were measurable, reproducible, and predictable. A physical difference between those who had practiced any type of relaxation response and those who had not was detectable, even when controlling for factors like age, education, and race. ÿ

Dr. Benson then led the crowd through a relaxation response and gave us the following instructions: “First, close your eyes and relax your body. Second, choose a word or phrase in your native language. Third, take a minute and focus on your breathing. Finally, after a minute, start repeating the word or phrase to yourself every time you exhale. ÿStay focused on that word. When other thoughts come into your mind, dismiss them and focus back on your breathing and the word.” Having a torrid love affair with words, I couldn’t pick a word or phrase quickly enough, so I chose “le mot”, which is French for “the word.” About halfway through the exercise, I remembered that French is not my native language; in fact, I have only been studying it for about six months. Of the four steps in the technique (close your eyes, breathe, think of word, breathe while thinking of word), the only step that wasn’t an automated physical response was the one that I failed to do properly. Sweet. Relaxation response: 1 Katie: 0.ÿAfter my epic fail, I decided it would be best to just quietly (and hopefully not creepily) observe the people around me. The room was filled with only the sound of slow, purposeful breathing. If Dr. Benson can get a room full of business school students to stop doing 782 things at once, I’m sold.

In the question-and answer-session that followed, Dr. Benson had useful advice such as the suggestion to practice the relaxation response mostly in the morning or other times when you want to be awake; to do it for at least 10 but no more than 20 minutes, to revive yourself just have a clock handy without an alarm, and to slowly give your brain and body a minute to readjust to regular thoughts. He also compared the technique to brushing your teeth: ÿBrushing is never good or bad; it just is. ÿWhen it’s over you don’t evaluate it for its worth; it just has value. He also suggested that you should keep your thoughts positive when the meditation is over and try to maintain the sort of calm that it creates. The relaxation response can be a great tool when you need to clear the cacophony from your mind, especially if you are good at your native language– which I think I might need to go practice.

Author’s Biography
Catherine (Katie) Leary Tomezsko is the General Manager of The Harbus.  She can be found on twitter @CTomezsko