The Relaxation Response

I just read the Relaxation Response.  It was written decades ago (by Harvard trained cardiologist, Herbert Benson) and was one of the first books (in the West) to link psychological stress to physiological problems.  After first realizing that I had suffered from chronic stress (which led to anxiety) and it had resulted in a breakdown of sorts.  My second realization was that in many ways I was responsible for it.

The Relaxation Response is the opposite of the Fight or Flight response.  Our bodies have adapted to automatically respond to fear or attack by releasing chemicals that launch in to this state of alert.  The adrenals kick in to high alert, which also stimulate the release of the stress hormone, cortisol.  This sets off a cascade of negative physical reactions from high blood pressure, digestive issues to general nervous system imbalance etc...  This is collectively known as STRESS. The problem is that, I hadn't learned to regulate this reaction to the modern realities of everyday stresses.  So, everything from a simple disagreement or just negative thoughts stimulated some level of stress.
An excerpt from the book defining the Relaxation Response:
"Each of us possesses a natural and innate protective mechanism against “overstress,” which allows us to turn off harmful bodily effects, to counter the effects of the fight-or-flight response. This response against “overstress” brings on bodily changes that decrease heart rate, lower metabolism, decrease the rate of breathing, and bring the body back into what is probably a healthier balance. This is the Relaxation Response".

I realized later that for myself this Fight or Flight response was causing many negative reactions for me both health wise and mentally.  My mind was out of control. I believed all of the things I thought.  I thought that many of the negative things I thought about myself, or my life, or the world were true.  It's only in retrospect that I can look at it and see that I was taken captive by my mind and wrapped up in a world of imagined stress.  At the time, I believed this was the absolute reality.  In essence I just needed to relax in order to find balance and see the truth and deal with the issues I was avoiding. 

So what is the Relaxation Response?  

For myself, it has been about learning to focus my mind (and body) into a state of relaxation.  The upside is that it feels like I am high.  (Yes, I mean "high" on marijuana...)  At first I found this to be amazing and slightly troubling.  I mean I had a grin from ear to ear and I just wanted to hug people.  I thought, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH ME? ..I FEEL GOOD!!! (cue James Brown riff)  Now I realize this is the most natural human state.  We're not supposed to be stressed all the time or NEED chemical stimulation from alcohol or drugs to get high.

another quote from the Relaxation Response: 
"In the six-month period prior to starting the practice of meditation, slightly over 1,450 participants in the study (78 percent) had used marijuana and hashish or both, and of that group 28 percent were classified as heavy users (once a day or more). After practicing Transcendental Meditation (The Relaxation Response) for about six months, only 37 percent reported they used marijuana. These figures indicate that over 40 percent discontinued their use of drugs after the intervention of Transcendental Meditation. After twenty-one months of regular practice, only 12 percent continued to use marijuana, a decrease of 66 percent".
"Perhaps the regular use of the Relaxation Response can provide a nonchemical alternative to fulfill at least some of the basic motivations behind (student) drug abuse. From the questionnaire it became apparent that not only did the subjects stop using drugs, but they also dropped off in the active selling of drugs and changed their attitude to the extent of actually discouraging others from using drugs. They claimed drugs interfered with the profound feelings that accompanied meditation, which they enjoyed more than the highs or lows of drugs."
I just read an article posted on the Wall Street Journal that nearly one in five Americans are on anti-depressant, anti-psychotic or anti-anxiety medication.  So to say that there is an epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression is an understatement.  Over the past year in casual conversations I've had with people across the country (and in my immediate family), I have been amazed by the numbers of people that have shared with me that they were dealing with similar issues.

How did I learn to find this Relaxation Response for myself?  By accident (or a series synchronistic events) and by God's grace...  However, this is so easy to begin practicing.  Here is another excerpt explaining one way of inducing the relaxation response based on a meditation style of approach.  I also believe brainwave synchronization via music (Binaural Beats) can also help to regularly achieve this state of relaxing the mind.
from the Relaxation Response: 
(1) A Quiet Environment - Ideally, you should choose a quiet, calm environment with as few distractions as possible. A quiet room is suitable, as is a place of worship. The quiet environment contributes to the effectiveness of the repeated word or phrase by making it easier to eliminate distracting thoughts.   
(2) A Mental Device -  To shift the mind from logical, externally oriented thought, there should be a constant stimulus: a sound, word, or phrase repeated silently or aloud; or fixed gazing at an object. Since one of the major difficulties in the elicitation of the Relaxation Response is “mind wandering,” the repetition of the word or phrase is a way to help break the train of distracting thoughts. Your eyes are usually closed if you are using a repeated sound or word; of course, your eyes are open if you are gazing. Attention to the normal rhythm of breathing is also useful and enhances the repetition of the sound or the word.   
(3) A Passive Attitude -  When distracting thoughts occur, they are to be disregarded and attention redirected to the repetition or gazing; you should not worry about how well you are performing the technique, because this may well prevent the Relaxation Response from occurring. Adopt a “let it happen” attitude. The passive attitude is perhaps the most important element in eliciting the Relaxation Response. Distracting thoughts will occur. Do not worry about them. When these thoughts do present themselves and you become aware of them, simply return to the repetition of the mental device. These other thoughts do not mean you are performing the technique incorrectly. They are to be expected.   
(4) A Comfortable Position -  A comfortable posture is important so that there is no undue muscular tension. Some methods call for a sitting position. A few practitioners use the crosslegged “lotus” position of the Yogi. If you are lying down, there is a tendency to fall asleep. As we have noted previously, the various postures of kneeling, swaying, or sitting in a cross-legged position are believed to have evolved to prevent falling asleep. You should be comfortable and relaxed."
 and here is a simplified version of the meditative style: 
"Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, “ONE,” silently to yourself. For example, breathe IN…OUT, “ONE” IN…OUT, “ONE” etc. Breathe easily and naturally. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes."

For me, this is also effective using binaural beats, singing bowls and other forms of music therapy.  I don't think that there is necessarily one magic tool, but for me there is a magic toolbox.  Here are some of the tools that I have found to work for me, but I think there are certainly many others.

Yoga - Yoga has been very helpful for me.  I believe I had held tension from stress and trauma in my body.  Yoga is one way of releasing that stress and trauma from the body.  Once the body releases, the emotions and deeper realizations are free to flow.  I have talked to plenty of people that have had emotional reactions after attending a yoga class.  Yoga is also really a great prelude to meditation.
Meditation - By focusing on simply BEING, meditation has a way of allowing me to relax deeply enough to let go of defenses.  I've noticed once my defenses are down then I have the ability to recognize the deeper emotional and psychological issues that are causing me stress (most of the time these exist at a subconscious level).  For me, the binaural beats are also like training wheels for meditation, helping to point the way to that place of stillness, and letting go. 
Diet (and Exercise) - The body is a temple, and taking care of it is key.  In addition to physical well being, mental processes are also impacted heavily by food choices.  I've learned (the hard way) to listen to my body and only eat the things that make me feel good.  It's a learning process.  I have also been on the Body Ecology Diet for a few years to eliminate candida yeast.  I think this yeast also had a negative impact on my body and my mind. 
Sound Therapy - Music can heal in multiple ways. Frequency, binaural beats and rhythms can have a deep impact on my ability to relax. The Binaural Beats I have posted on the sounds page I developed for my own personal therapy, and to share with friends.  Listening to these daily has helped me to train my mind to go to these relaxing states more easily.

These are the things that have worked for me.  Volumes have been written about this stuff and I'll elaborate more on each one later and how it has specifically helped me, and hopefully this will also be useful to you.

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