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Reduce stress with Benson's relaxation technique

Try Herbert Benson's proven five step method to turn down overwhelm.


Feeling under pressure can lead to us feeling stressed. This is because when we sense we are under threat in some way, our inbuilt fight/flight response gets activated.


As it is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), we have no control over this mechanism. But, we can step in when it's triggered, because the ANS consists of two branches that work in opposition to each other.


The sympathetic branch mediates the fight/flight aka stress response; it revs us up to deal with challenge. The parasympathetic does the opposite. It slows things down.


Relaxation techniques such as slow breathing, mindful coloring, yoga practice or just picturing a peaceful place encourage the body to switch over to the ANS’ rest and digest parasympathetic branch.

Herbert Benson, the founder of the Harvard Mind-Body Institute, named the inbuilt physiological changes that occur when the stress response is off the relaxation response (Benson, Beary and Carol, 1974).


He found that the body's automatic relaxation response could be entrained using a simple meditative approach.


How to initiate Benson's Relaxation Response


1. Get comfortable. Whether sitting, standing or lying down, uncross the legs and allow the arms and hands to rest.


2. Gently close the eyes (no need to squeeze shut) or lower your gaze to the floor.


3. Scan your body for any obvious areas of tension that you can relax a little more.


Tip! Many of us (including me) tense our bellies unconsciously. See if that's true for you and, if it is, let your belly relax completely.


4. Breathing only through the nose, if that works for you, find and focus your attention on the sensations of breath in the nostrils, throat or belly.


5. Each time you exhale, silently say to yourself "one".


Tip! It's the focus on the exhale and repetition of a word so that thinking is inhibited that is important, not the word you use. So, if you want to choose another word or a phrase (e.g. all is well) that's fine just don't choose something that excites you or has negative connotations.


6. Your attention will naturally wander from the breath and you may become lost in thought. When that happens in a matter-of-fact way say to yourself "O, well" and then return to your breath and repeating your word.


How to use

Benson recommended doing this for 10 minutes in the morning and in the evening, to elicit the healing benefits that arises from being relaxed.


You can also use it to prepare for something you might find challenging. Take a time out to practice before a difficult call or conversation, prepare to give a talk or similar.


If you are going to do this for a set amount of time, every now and again look at a clock. Best not to use an alarm, it may make you jump and reduce the sense of calm that has arisen!


Finally, don't expect to feel a change. Trust that your body is doing things internally that you can't detect.



Did you have a go? I'm curious to know how you found this famous relaxation response. I love to hear how people find the techniques I share, send me a message to tell me how you got on.


Take care of you.

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