Herbert Benson and the Relaxation Response in the 21st Century
In 1975, the Relaxation Response, a book by Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School cardiologist, became a surprise, multi-million selling best-seller and led to his subsequent books such as Your Maximum Mind, Timeless Healing, The Breakout Principle and Relaxation Revolution. Benson is still writing and researching, and the January-February 2012 UTNE Reader has a fascinating Q&A with him, conducted by Daniel Redwood, about the roots of the relaxation response, and Benson’s work in stress reduction and related holistic health areas.
Relaxation in this sense is not engaging in relaxing activities, but the response of our bodies to techniques that, among other things, decrease heart rate, breath rate and blood pressure; and provide an alternative to the “fight-or-flight” response. Benson is now the Director Emeritus of the The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. The site describes the response and also provides directions for eliciting it. Meditation is one vehicle, but the interview points out that there are others, including yoga, repetitive prayer, and even activities like knitting or crocheting. There can be a religious or spiritual component, but it is not necessary. Benson points out in the interview that it is “very important to note that health and well-being is akin to a three-legged stool. One leg is pharmaceuticals. The second leg is surgery and other procedures. There has to be a third leg, and that leg is self-care. Within that self-care leg we have the relaxation response, nutrition, exercise, the beliefs of the patient, socialization, and cognitive restructuring.”
Benson’s work is needed now more than ever. Although many of the stressors of life are similar to what they were in 1975, a major trigger that did not exist then is our 24/7 always on, always connected, always expected to be available culture. The benefits from the relaxation response may be a key ingredient in helping today’s knowledge workers remain healthy and productive.