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Dr. Benson’s Relaxation Exercise

Dr. John MacIntosh, ND, RMT - Naturopathic Doctor, Registered Massage & Suikodo™ Therapist

relaxation exercise

Our world is unpredictable. Fortunately, we have evolved a set of built-in, emergency procedures to deal with threatening situations. The famous “Fight-or-Flight” response is our bodies’ way of preparing us to defend ourselves. For example, to flee from a threatening predator. Our bodily reactions to such an event are automatic. Without them, we would never have made it very far as a species.

Modern life contains many stressors too. In fact, any form of change is stressful, all the more so if it’s sudden and unpleasant. Yet, no matter the source of the stress, the body’s physical response to it is always the same: increased blood pressure and blood sugar, focused attention, quicker reflexes and greater strength. In the short term, stress can actually be beneficial. Athletes and performers, for instance, have known for a long time that a certain level of stress can help them achieve a higher level of performance.

Chronic stress causes what Dr. Hans Selye, Ph.D., of McGill University, called “General Adaptation Syndrome”, a physical process by which all organisms (including humans) cope with stressors. The final stage of General Adaptation Syndrome is what Dr. Selye called “Exhaustion”, characterized by emotional volatility, depressed immune system function, fatigue, high blood pressure, insomnia and a host of other negative effects. But there’s no need to go down that road. Stress is not dangerous in and of itself; instead, it’s chronic or unopposed stress that leads to the negative changes that Dr. Selye described.

Although it is certainly true that some of us appear to deal with stress better than others, all of us can learn how to unleash our internal ‘anti-stress’ systems. We possess an equally powerful, internal response (termed the Relaxation Response) that counters all of the physical changes that the Stress Response creates. The term, ‘Relaxation Response’ was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, Ph.D., who first described the physical and mental changes that relaxation elicits. He demonstrated that these techniques help us master our emotions and handle stress with greater clarity and ease, thereby improving the health of our bodies and minds.

The Relaxation Response shuts off the Stress Response, reversing all of its effects. By regularly using the Relaxation Response, we can return our bodies to their normal state, preventing unopposed stress and exhaustion. While the Stress Response is activated automatically (like any good ‘emergency system’), the Relaxation Response can be consciously evoked.

Anyone can use this exercise to evoke the Relaxation Response. It may be performed at any time but is especially effective in the morning or in the evening before going to bed (for insomnia). It is also very useful to calm one’s anxiety before stressful events (e.g., exams, public speaking, meeting new people or to help bust writer’s block).

Use it for fifteen to twenty minutes, once or twice every day (e.g., in the morning before rising, at night before bed or during the day when you have a few minutes for yourself) for a more profound, lasting effect.

How to Evoke Your Relaxation Response

Create a Quiet, Comfortable Environment

Sit upright in a comfortable chair with your hands in your lap, feet flat on the ground and a clock within easy view. If you do this exercise lying down, you’re liable to fall asleep (which is very good for insomnia but not if you have things to do!). The setting should remain quiet (turn off your phone, TV, etc.).

Just Breathe

Close your eyes and concentrate on the rhythm of your breathing for the first 5 minutes or so. Allow your belly to expand outward as you inhale and relax as you exhale. Let your natural breathing rhythm take over. If you need to distract your mind, focus on the movement of air past your nostrils.

Clear Your Mind of Thoughts

Thoughts will naturally intrude at first but try to keep your mind clear of them. When they (inevitably) occur, just acknowledge them (“Oh, there’s a thought,”) as if observing them from a distance, then refocus on your breathing. Do this whenever thoughts intrude: notice that you’re thinking and then drop the thought.

Use the Contract-Relax Technique to Relax Your Body

After a few minutes, your breathing will become more even and thoughts will intrude less frequently. Begin the Contract-Relax phase of the exercise: as you inhale, gently contract the muscles of your left foot, and as you exhale, relax your foot. Inhale = contract; exhale = relax. Simple. Do this two or three times for your foot. After each contraction, repeat in your mind: “My foot is warm and heavy.”Repeat this on your left calf, then your left thigh and then your buttocks. Then do the same with your right leg. Next contract-relax your lower back, your abdomen and your upper back. Scrunch up your shoulders, left upper arm, forearm and hand. Repeat with your right arm. Contract-relax your neck, clench your jaw, scrunch up your face and then your scalp (yes, you have muscles up there too). After each contract-relax, tell yourself that part is now “warm and heavy”.


Once you’ve gone all the way up your body using contract-relax, you will notice a warm, relaxed feeling—that’s the Relaxation Response! Enjoy it for as long as time allows (up to 20 minutes, say). When it’s time to return to your day, do so gently. Open your eyes, wait for a bit, then start moving about again slowly. Stand and stretch once briefly—up on your toes, head back, extending your hands and fingers skyward—to shift between phases of rest and activity.If you’re not sure you’re getting it at first, don’t worry. It often takes a few times before you really feel the effect. Keep trying and eventually you will be able to stimulate your Relaxation Response reliably. It is there for all of us to use.

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