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Managing Stress With Meditation

In the early 1970s, when Dr. Herbert Benson was defining and testing the techniques he presented to the world in his revolutionary book, The Relaxation Response, I was a hippie teenager learning transcendental meditation (TM). Flash forward about 40 years and I’m sitting in an amphitheater packed with a few hundred medical students, faculty, and staffers from Harvard Medical School listening to the iconic director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute explain the myriad benefits of the relaxation response.

The relaxation response is a self-induced quieting of brain activity. It leads to a body-wide slowdown and a feeling of well-being that have measurably positive effects on disorders caused by stress or made worse by it, including high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, and many digestive disorders. As Dr. Benson describes in Stress Management, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, the relaxation response may even change how our genes express themselves.

Achieving the relaxation response might seem too simple to be effective, but it works: Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Relax your muscles and silently repeat a word, phrase, sound, or short prayer of your choosing over and over. When stray thoughts interfere (as they will), let them come and go and return to your word, phrase, or sound. Dr. Benson quipped that he chose “one” as the repetitive word for use in The Relaxation Response because the Harvard Medical School students he enrolled back then as study subjects lost count on their way to “ten.”

Then it was our turn. Dr. Benson led the auditorium full of presumably stressed-out people (the Red Sox had lost their final regular-season home game the night before, to name just one minor stressor) in a five-minute exercise to help us experience what he’s been talking and writing about for decades. I recalled my TM mantra, and after five minutes of quietude and presumably turning on the relaxation response, I felt reenergized and alert.

As enthusiastic as Dr. Benson is about the relaxation response, he’s not fussy about how you achieve it—any technique from any tradition, religious or secular, will do. But you have to do it every day to get the benefits, he emphasized. Therein lay the rub for me: I gradually but inexorably let TM slip out of my daily routine sometime in the 1980s.

“We can’t change the stressors in our lives,” Dr. Benson concluded. “But doing this for 10 to 20 minutes every day will change our reactions to them.” (You can watch Dr. Benson’s entire presentation at Harvard Medical School’s Talks@12.)

Convinced, I’m now getting up a little earlier in the morning to squeeze some meditation back into my life.

Stress Management, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, provides in-depth information on identifying your stress warning signs and learning how to manage stress. To order this report—or one of Harvard Medical School’s other special health reports and newsletters—visit health.harvard.edu/special_health_reports. There you’ll find summaries, free excerpts, and the tables of contents from all our Special Health Reports, as well as free health news articles and blogs from the doctors and editors at Harvard Health Publications.

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*


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