The Relaxation Response

"Working with yarn provides stress relief," says Herbert Benson, MD, a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Relaxation Response.

"Like meditation or prayer, knitting allows for the passive release of stray thoughts." But while studies have found that meditation can sometimes induce stress and depression, knitting doesn't have that effect. In fact, it tops many doctors' calming-activity lists."The rhythmic and repetitive quality of the stitching, along with the needles clicking resembles a calming mantra," Dr. Benson explains. "The mind can wander while still focusing on one task."

Relaxation Response

Dr. Herbert Benson of Mind Body Institute and Harvard Medical School has developed this therapy following his groundbreaking study of the effect of the TM on relaxation.

To elicit relaxation response, Dr. Benson recommends that you choose a technique that conforms to your own beliefs. The relaxation response can be evoked by a large number of techniques, including:

  • Meditation

  • Certain types of prayer
  • Autogenic training
  • Progressive muscular relaxation
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Lamaze breathing exercises
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi chuan
  • Chi gong
  • Knitting and crocheting, etc.

Evoking relaxation response is relatively simple. Only two basic steps need to be followed.

Step 1: You need to repeat a word, sound, prayer, phrase, or muscular activity. (You can use a religious or other word that means something to you or you can use a neutral word such as: One, Ocean, Love, Peace, Calm, Relax, etc.

Step 2: When common, everyday thoughts intrude on your focus, passively disregard them and return to your repetition.

Dr. Benson recommends the following steps to elicit relaxation response in his book, "Timeless Healing":

Step 1. Pick a focus word or short phrase that's firmly rooted in your belief system.

Step 2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.

Step 3. Close your eyes.

Step 4. Relax your muscles.

Step 5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, repeat your focus word, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.

Step 6. Assume a passive attitude. Don't worry about how well you 're doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, "Oh, well," and gently return to the repetition.

Step 7. Continue for ten to twenty minutes.

Step 8. Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.

Step 9. Practice this technique once or twice daily.

Dr. Benson and his colleagues at the Mind Body Institute in Boston found that relaxation response is very useful in healing several stress related ailments, including anxiety. Here are some of the conditions healed or cured by elicitation of the relaxation response in combination with self-care strategies such as nutrition, exercise, and stress-management:

  • Patients with hypertension experienced significant decreases in blood pressure and needed fewer or no medications over a three-year measurement period (Eileen M. Stewart).
  • Patients with chronic pain experienced less severity of pain, more activity, less anxiety, less depression, less anger, and they visited the managed care facility where they received care 36 percent less often in the two years after completing the program than they did prior to treatment
  • Seventy-five percent of patients with sleep-onset insomnia were cured and became normal sleepers. Sleeping also improved for the other 25 percent, and most patients took significantly fewer sleep medications
  • Patients with complaints described by the admitting personnel as psychosomatic and who were frequent users of a health maintenance organization reduced their number of visits by 50 percent
  • Women suffering from symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) experienced a 57 percent decrease in severity. The more severe the PMS, the more effective the relief with the relaxation response
  • Patients undergoing painful X-ray procedures experienced less anxiety and pain and needed one- third the amount of pain and anxiety medications usually required
  • Patients who had open-heart surgery had fewer postoperative arrhythmias and less anxiety following surgery
  • Migraine and cluster headache sufferers found they had fewer and less severe headaches
  • High school sophomores increased their self-esteem (Herbert Benson).
  • Working people experienced reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and hostility
  • Working people had fewer medical symptoms, fewer illness days, improved performance, and lower blood pressure (Ruanne K Peters).

All of us have the ability to evoke the great effects of relaxation response. But we still don't precisely know which brain mechanisms make the relaxation response possible. Most people feel some effects of the lifestyle changes associated with the relaxation response and associated strategies immediately.

But the larger, more dramatic effects of the relaxation response are cumulative. So, you have to be patient and work on these techniques, sometimes it takes several months or years to accomplish complete "healing."