Herbert Benson’s The Relaxation Response is one of those long-time bestsellers that rocked the world of anxiety and stress treatment back in the days when Transcendental Meditation (TM) was also popular.
Response to What?
Before exploring his teachings, what are readers of Benson’s work responding to? They are responding to stress from external and internal sources; emotional and physical stress. The body’s usual response is “fight or flight” which causes the release of adrenaline to simulate action.
Sometimes the body overcompensates and the consequences are dramatic: anxiety attacks, heart attacks, dizziness, and panic. Fighting or fleeing can be the appropriate way to respond to stress in some cases, but very few. Imagine being chased by a dog or fighting for your life: these are good examples. Most stressors, however, should not evoke such a strong reaction.
Why Do We Over-react?
Many people handle stress well, but there are individuals with poor stress-management behaviors stemming from mental illness, a poor attitude, anger management issues, or an inability to prioritize. Maturity and counseling, possibly medication for clinical anxiety, will help bring these reactions under control.
Herbert Benson, however, believed there is something else we can do which is not medical or spiritual but simply practical. He provided an alternative to prayer or meditation; something without divine inspiration for anyone unwilling to attach serenity to a higher power.
His book “The Relaxation Response” has been highly influential in the practice of non-spiritual relaxation which is very similar to yogic meditation and, as the author has said, much like Transcendental Meditation.
The biggest difference between them is that TM is part of a system; a program. The Relaxation Response is not: it stands alone as a means of learning to relax when you find this difficult for any reason.
Benson still encourages readers to practice relaxation; learning to adopt a peaceful attitude to stress rather than allowing it to inspire over-reaction and further issues relating to mental or physical health. His method is very simple and you may have already tried it without knowing to whom you could attribute the credit.
Sit down somewhere you will not be disturbed; a comfortable, quiet place. These days there are more electronics around, all of them emitting reminders and alarms at various times. Turn them all off or go somewhere you will not hear them.
Settle into your position and choose to relax with your eyes closed. This is a superficial kind of relaxation and you will go deeper. Breathe through your nose repeating the word “one.” It’s just a word, something to focus on, not meaningful unless you wish to attribute meaning to it in some spiritual way.
That’s part of the beauty of this method: it could be connected to prayer or meditation if you wish. During the next 10 or 20 minutes continue to breathe through your nose and say the word “one” unless it irritates you. That’s not relaxing.
Don’t set an alarm to wake you from this posture noisily, undoing the positive work of deep relaxation. Open your eyes every now and then to look at a clock or your watch. You can also feel a session coming to an end after what seems like 20 minutes to you, but don’t rush it. Time goes by slowly when you aren’t doing anything.
As you move out of the posture, do so slowly. Don’t rush to stand up. Take glory in the feeling of deep peace you have experienced so you can recapture it if necessary later on. Become slowly aware of your environment. Do this regularly to become proficient at Relaxation Response.