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Reduce stress with Benson's relaxation technique

Learn Herbert Benson's proven five step method to reset the nervous system.


Feeling under pressure can soon have has feeling worried and stressed. This is because our inbuilt fight/flight response is activated whenever we sense we're at risk or feel uncertain about an outcome.


As it's a function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), we have no control over the response initiating. However, we can step in when it's triggered because the ANS consists of two separate branches.


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


Anything that can take our focus away from our worries such as mindful coloring, yoga practice, or just picturing a peaceful place can move us out of fight/flight and into rest/digest (parasympathetic branch).


Herbert Benson, the founder of the Harvard Mind-Body Institute, researched and developed a simple meditative technique that can quickly en train what he termed our "relaxation response" (Benson, Beary and Carol, 1974).



How to initiate Benson's Relaxation Response


1. Find a comfortable position. 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 rest your gaze on something in front of you. Don't stare, try to have a soft focus.


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 repeat to yourself the word "one".


Tip! It's the focus on the exhale and repetition of a word 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. After a few moments 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 chosen word or phrase.


Benson recommended focusing on your breath and silently repeating your chosen word or phase for 10 minutes.


How to use

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


If you're not concerned about time, you can just sit and practice until you feel yourself more relaxed.


As well as using the practice when we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed or frantic, Benson recommended doing it each morning and evening, to reset the nervous system and elicit the healing benefits that arise when the body is relaxed.


Personally, I use it when I notice I have racing thoughts and a sense of having too much to do. I have also found it useful before a difficult conversation, preparing to give a talk or when I can't get to sleep.


As a regular practice, I do it mainly in the morning.


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


Take care of you.


I regularly host free webinars teaching this and other stress management techniques. Join my mailing list to receive wellbeing tips and invites to the sessions.

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