“Relaxation Response” – 21st Century Survival Skill?

Meditation flower

Stressed Are We?

From my experience, I know mind-focusing types of meditation or prayer reduce stress, and can be vital for personal and spiritual growth. To make sure we are operating at the same level, I want to review the scientific basis for the “fight or flight,” and “relaxation response”, and various approaches that counteract stress, such as meditation, prayer and yoga.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association states again, we are a stressed out bunch. Three quarters of our population report they regularly experience physical and psychological symptoms caused by stress. One third of us feel they are living with extreme stress, and half believe their stress has increased over the past five years. High blood pressure goes together with the stress of city life, according to recent studies. No one today questions that excessive stress is not good for us.

Dr. Herbert Benson was the first major Western medical doctor to study and verify the benefits of meditation. He is a Harvard cardiologist who pioneered the research into stress-related causes for diseased, such as hypertension. His classic book The Relaxation Response was my intro into historic Western and Eastern meditations and their scientific basis. A technique he describes is still the simplest and one of the most effective meditation approaches I use.

Flight-or-Fight Response

As you are probably aware, our body’s “flight-or-fight” response, first described 100 years ago by a Harvard physiologist, is caused when we feel threatened. When faced with stressful situations, our bodies release hormones. These cause our heart, breathing and metabolic rate to increase, and blood to flow to our muscles. This gears our bodies to do either battle or to flee.

According to Benson, the response is an evolutionary trait that helped our ancestors survive threats. Today, anxiety and tension trigger these bodily responses, prompted by real or perceived threats to us.

Frequent triggering of the response can lead to hypertension, which puts one at risk of heart attack or stroke. These diseases are appearing in young adults even in their early thirties.

Relaxation Response

Benson presented the relaxation response as the anti-dote. He verifies the physiological changes brought about by meditation and certain types of prayer in a clear and no-nonsense way.

Dr. Benson proved his results by adhering to the strict standards of Western scientific medicine. His work met the three norms of measurability, predictability, and reproducibility. He showed how proper breathing, visualizing, muscular relaxation and positive statements help our nervous, circulatory, respiratory, and immune systems.

Gathered from ancient Eastern and Western traditions, Benson provides instructions for eliciting the relaxation response. In summary, they consist of four simple steps that produce calming effects on the human body:

  1. finding a quiet place,
  2. sitting in a comfortable position,
  3. repeating and focusing on a sound, word, prayer, or phrase silently or aloud for up to 10 to 20 minutes, and
  4. gently putting aside any distracting thoughts as they appear, and returning to one’s focus.

He found that this technique reduces heart rate, slows our breath and metabolism, and relaxes muscles. Used consistently, the relaxation response can help control elevated blood pressure, and possibly prevent the onset of hypertension. He also found this practice eases the pain of migraine headaches, anxiety, and mild to moderate depression. It improves or even cures nervousness, fatigue and insomnia.

For we anxious types, integrating meditation into our daily routine can do wonders for calming anxiety symptoms. The book contains meditation instructions for stimulating the Relaxation Response.

For those who are uneasy with what some call exotic philosophies and practices, the scientific detail in this study may help one feel comfortable taking a meditation class. Benson notes the majority of his patients chose prayers as the means to evoke the Relaxation Response.

Meditation and Prayer

Dr. Benson’s book The Relaxation Response has a simple to follow method for stress reduction. It provides a detailed medical explanation of negative impacts of stress on your body, but also explains how to reduce stress by breaking the train of everyday thinking. The book also has an interesting history of various spiritual approaches to meditation.

Even though the field of mind-body research has expanded beyond his original insights, this book still has the core truths about mental and physical benefits of meditation. At the time of the latest update of the book, Benson reports that a third of Americans now practice a technique to arouse the Relaxation Response. Meditation, prayer, yoga and other relaxation techniques are now as mainstream as exercise, diet and medications in certain medical treatments.


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For further information, see the following:

For more detailed instructions for eliciting the Relaxation Response, see the Introduction to the updated version of The Relaxation Response (2000 edition.)

Timeless Healing (1997) by Herbert Benson and Marg Stark

Relaxation Revolution: The Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing (2011) by Herbert Benson and William Procto

Also see websites:

Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response.


The University of Maryland Medical School.


The National Institute of Health.


Other references:

Stress Statistics Cited