Relaxation – A (Largely) Under-Practiced Hero of Health?
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  • Post published:13/05/2021
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Sixty to ninety percent of all doctor visits are for stress-related ailments. This is an estimate that encompasses the ranges given by many authoritative sources. There is wide agreement that unhealthful stress, the habitual and inappropriate activation of the fight-or-flight response, is a factor in illness. There is also wide agreement that relaxation can counteract stress’s harmful effects and have significant healthful benefits. So, given that relaxation is a known antidote with a powerful impact on health, why are the majority of doctor visits still related to stress? I wonder if the answer lies in understanding what relaxation is and how it can be effectively cultivated for health. Does watching television, doing a favorite hobby, sleeping, or playing a sport qualify as relaxation? The answer, it seems to me, is – it depends. Let us first take a look at some of the harmful effects of stress and then the kind of relaxation that can benefit health.

RelaxationRobert Ader, an experimental psychologist and founder in 1975 of a field called psychoneuroimmunology, was one of the first scientists to document the link between mental processes and stress and illness, a revolutionary concept in medicine at the time. Dr. Ader’s book Psychoneuroimmunology cites many studies linking disease to personality and emotional traits. Today, authoritative sources accept the link between the way we respond to life and disease; that chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and its serious consequences such as heart disease and stroke, chest pain and irregular heartbeats. Stress is indicated as an aggravating factor in diabetes, chronic joint and muscular pain, depression, and almost any other condition you can name. Stress management is an important consideration in diseases such as cancer.

Also in the 1970’s Dr. Robert Benson, a Harvard Cardiologist, began studying the effect of relaxation on health. In 1975 Dr. Benson published a book on his groundbreaking research that identified and documented what he termed “the relaxation response,” a bodily adaptation that brings about the opposite effects from the fight-or-flight response. He noted that this response can be brought forth in the age-old activities of meditation and prayer, for example. It was through studying Transcendental Meditation practitioners that he first documented specific physiological changes of the response.

The relaxation response Dr. Benson measured has four elements:

  • A quiet environment
  • A word or sound or object to help quiet and focus the mind
  • A passive attitude
  • A comfortable position

These also happen to be the elements of meditation and focused prayer. In Buddhist meditation the word or sound or object of focus is understood to help quiet what is called “monkey mind” – the restless stream of thoughts of the waking mind that produce anger, fear, anxiety, etc. A passive attitude in Christian mystical terms is needed to reach the state of contemplation, a neutral mindset where you are not judging anything or trying to accomplish anything; this, in essence, embodies the concept of being in the present. Other spiritual and religious traditions have practices that embody the same concepts.

Whether or not an activity elicits the relaxation that Dr. Benson measured depends upon whether or not the restless mind is quieted and a nonjudgmental, passive attitude is present. These are the two most important features that will counteract the harmful effects of stress. Activities that should be peaceful are not always so. Have you ever gone to sleep and awakened more tired than when you went to bed, Or with a headache? I know I have. Oftentimes the chronic tension we hold in our bodies follows us into sleep and stays in place even when we play.

The key to using relaxation as a tool for health is to develop a relaxation practice. This can be a challenge; relaxation challenges our stress-related habits, which can make us uncomfortable and therefore want to forego the practice. We need to recognize that relaxation is a skill that has to be honed daily. It takes time and a willingness to change habits that will determine success. A quiet, focused mind responds to life differently than a stressed-out, restless one. A nonjudgmental and serene attitude will evaluate life’s experiences differently, as well.

There are a wide variety of practices that qualify as a means to alleviate unhealthful stress. One that has gained in popularity is Yoga Nidra. It involves consciously focusing on different parts of the body in a systematic sequence, not trying to accomplish anything, not even trying to relax; just directing the mind as it travels from one body part to the next. To explore more relaxation techniques take a look at The Mayo Clinic’s list.

Relaxation techniques can fit any approach to life. Meditation or prayer may be suited for some while hypnosis or progressive muscle relaxation may be a better fit for others. The means are there. Success and the chances for better health can be had with committed practice.


Photo Credit

Photo is from Relaxing Tranquility Moments Blog


Guest Author Bio

Barbara Moroney
Barbara MoroneyBarbara Moroney cured her insomnia over the course of three years with the dedicated practice of Yoga Nidra. She and her son, Neill, own A Major Difference, the manufacturers of the IonCleanse, an FDA and CE approved ionic footbath. She is author of Ionic Yoga, a meditation CD designed to promote relaxation and aid detoxification during footbath sessions. To learn more visit:

Blog / Website: A Major Difference

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