Relaxation is good for you. Over the past 40 years, a tremendous amount of research has been done on relaxation and meditation, and the findings are truly amazing. Relaxation can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, help prevent heart disease, relieve or even prevent headaches, reduce pain, help control hypertension, help you sleep better and cure insomnia, alleviate panic attacks, improve your ability to come up with creative solutions to problems, increase your memory and ability to learn, improve your energy level, improve your self-esteem, reduce depression, improve your relationships and your health, and make you feel better in general.
But the kind of relaxation these folks studied was not what most of us mean when we say, “Yeah, I had a relaxing weekend.” They were studying a more concentrated, more profound form of relaxation, and you cannot get it watching TV.
The relaxation that produces those results requires you to relax your mind as well as your body.
One of the major players in that research is a medical doctor named Herbert Benson. He coined the term “relaxation response,” which is what he calls the natural, physical changes that take place when people meditate or relax profoundly. It’s the antidote and flip-side of the “fight-or-flight response” — the adrenaline-pumping reaction we get to dangerous, threatening or stressful situations.
Benson’s first experiments were on practitioners of TM (Transcendental Meditation), a form of “mantra” meditation. A mantra is a word or phrase repeated over and over to oneself. If this is done with a passive, non-forcing attitude, it changes your body. Heartbeat and metabolism slow down, the level of blood-lactate goes down, and the electrical pulsing of your brain slows down and becomes more rhythmic.
Benson found you can repeat other words besides the Indian mantra given to students of TM and it produces the same changes. Some forms of Yogic and Zen meditation also produce the same changes. So do Autogenic Training and Progressive Relaxation.
And when you relax like that for twenty minutes once or twice a day, all kinds of good things happen to your body. It’s extremely healthy and it feels good. It’s psychologically healthy. It’s the antidote to stress.
People who relax like that have a less intense reaction to stressful situations, and they recover from them faster than people who don’t. In other words, instead of a person’s heartbeat going from, say, 70 to 120 beats per minute during an argument and returning to 70 in an hour, it might go from 70 to only 100 beats per minute, and return to 70 in a half hour. That kind of change is healthy for your body and good for your relationships and gosh darn it, it’s just more fun! Stress is unpleasant.
When blood-lactate levels drop during relaxation, it stays down afterwards. This is one reason you feel so good afterwards. Blood-lactate has something to do with anxiety. When you measure the blood-lactate level of someone who feels anxious, you’ll find a lot of it. When you give someone a shot of lactate intravenously, they suddenly feel anxious. A certain percentage of people will have an immediate panic attack.
I could go on and on — the amount of research on this subject is extensive — but I’m going to give you a technique you can use to produce the relaxation response for yourself. It works very well, and it’s all you need.
But keep in mind there are hundreds of ways to produce the relaxation response, and if you don’t like this one, there are plenty more to choose from. This one is basic, however, and will produce the relaxation response we’re looking for. Here it is:
How to Relax
1. Get into a comfortable position and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax.
2. Repeat some word or short phrase over and over to yourself.
3. When you notice yourself thinking about something else, gently start repeating your word or phrase again.
4. When you think your time is up, open your eyes and look at the clock. If you aren’t done yet, close your eyes and keep repeating.
Repeat your word or phrase fast or slow — whatever is best for you. You can repeat it to the rhythm of your breath or not — whatever you like.
The most important part of the process is Step 3. Biofeedback research has confirmed peoples’ personal experience: Trying doesn't help. People in biofeedback training who try to lower their blood pressure are the only ones who can’t do it. When you try to concentrate or try to relax, you won’t be able to. You need a passive, let-it-happen kind of attitude.
Your mind will often wander from your repeated word or phrase. No need to be bothered by that. Just bring your mind back to your repeated word or phrase. Over and over again.
It’s the process of doing this that’s good for you — not some end state or goal you reach.
Drifting off and noticing it and bringing your mind back to your repeated phrase is the process. And it’s this process that gives you all the benefits.
The attitude to have is a combination of persistence and acceptance. You persist in repeating your word and you accept it when your mind wanders, but you still persist in repeating your word again, while accepting that you wander off.
Most of the studies were done on people who did this kind of relaxation 15-20 minutes, once or twice a day, so that’s what I recommend. Put a clock where you can see it.
By the time the 15 or 20 minutes are over, you’re usually going to feel very relaxed, which is why I don’t recommend you set an alarm or buzzer to tell you your time is up. It can jar you, and that’s the opposite of the relaxation response.
Don’t expect anything. Sometimes you’ll feel deeply relaxed and almost blissful afterwards, sometimes you won’t. It’s a good session either way. Sometimes your mind will drift, sometimes it won’t. It’s a good session either way. And sometimes you’ll just fall asleep, and that just means you probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Even that’s okay: naps are good for you too.
Since you can pretty much repeat anything you want and it will work, I suggest you repeat something that has some meaning for you. The shorter, the better. Soft sounds — M’s and N’s and Sh’s — work better (are more relaxing) than hard sounds: K’s and P’s and Q’s.
During the relaxation response, your brainwaves slow down and become more steady and rhythmic. These are called “alpha” and “theta” brainwaves. There’s a good deal of evidence that we are more suggestible in those states than in our normal waking state (a “beta” brainwave pattern). Since you’re already in this suggestible state when you relax, you can (and might as well) make use of it by giving yourself suggestions.
The word or phrase you repeat can be a suggestion, and/or at the end, when you’re still relaxed with your eyes closed and your time is up, you can take a minute or two and give yourself some positive suggestions. For example: “When I open my eyes, I’ll feel refreshed and alert,” or, “Tonight I will have a dream that will give me an idea for a solution to a problem.”
You might as well take advantage of your suggestibility while you have it.
That’s all there is to it. It takes a little time, but it’s worth it. This is something that not only has long-term benefits, but also feels good in the short-term.
If you'd like to read more, I recommend Benson's book, The Relaxation Response.
Experiments by psychologist Gary Schwartz showed that people who relax regularly have lower anxiety levels and fewer psychological problems.
Regular relaxation also improves your ability to pick up subtle perceptual cues and increases your empathy. And research by Ronald Riggio, Ph.D., proved what our everyday experience tells us: moods and attitudes are contagious.
Add these findings together and it means that if you relaxed regularly you would be better at resolving conflict with people; you’d be able to come together with people more harmoniously to reach compromises that are good for everyone. The world needs more people like that.
And since moods are contagious and since relaxing regularly puts you in a better mood and makes you more calm and relaxed, the people around you will also be in a better mood and be more calm and relaxed, which is good for them like it’s good for you.
You can help your children and your spouse and your friends and your co-workers be healthier, happier and have better relationships just by relaxing yourself.
Everything goes better with relaxation. Work. Relationships. Sex. Social interaction. Talking with children. Relaxation is good.
It’s an old Chinese saying that if you want to change the world, change your government, and if you want to change your government, change your family, and if you want to change your family, change yourself. You can make a step in that direction by relaxing.