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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How to Relax - Dr Herbert Benson


We live in a world where all people are under stress and we are constantly looking for quick fixes to these stress-related problems. Soldiers especially are under incredible amounts of stress. I stumbled upon this article from Turning Point Now and thought it important enough to post here.

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / February 5, 2009

Nearly 35 years ago, Herbert Benson wrote the book on how to battle stress. Today, he says, it's as relevant as ever. Benson, author of the ''The Relaxation Response,'' has made stress - and the relieving of it - his life's work.

By the time they're 73, most doctors are thinking about hanging up their stethoscopes, if they haven't already. Not Dr. Herbert Benson, though, whose medical specialty - stress - is a growth industry these days.

Benson is the guru of relaxation and busier than ever. Nearly 35 years ago the Harvard cardiologist became a kind of medical rock star with his best-selling book "The Relaxation Response." It outlined a pioneering and irresistibly simple approach to relieving stress and a host of medical conditions related to it. Breathe deeply, repeat a word or phrase, and keep it up for 10-20 minutes, twice a day.

The book leaped to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and earned Benson international acclaim as one of the first Western physicians to bring spirituality and healing into medicine. He was interviewed by Barbara Walters. He met a dozen times with the Dalai Lama. He testified before Congress about the relationship between body and mind.

His book came out during a tumultuous time in this country, though the kind of anxiety he was addressing in 1975 seems quaintly low-voltage today. Women faced "conflicting expectations and suppositions." Men were adjusting to a new role "that may mean more responsibility for family and household."

But that was long before the pace of life accelerated thanks to e-mail, BlackBerries, and multi-tasking. Long before banks tanked, retirement funds evaporated, and thousands lost jobs every day.

You wanna talk stress? Benson wants to talk stress. It's his work, his passion, his "hobby," he said. The way he sees it, stresses are piling up around all of us. People feel helpless, and it's hurting their health. Adults are getting high blood pressure. Kids are turning to drugs and alcohol. But Benson has an answer. And it's easy! And it doesn't cost anything! And it's been around for millennia!

You can almost feel his sense of urgency. "These are trying times," Benson tells a dozen doctors, nurses, and other health care workers. He's leading a lunchtime session for Massachusetts General Hospital employees to teach them the relaxation response. "People do not have faith it will get better."

He reassures them that it will get better if they do his focusing techniques once or twice a day. One caveat, though: It won't eliminate stress, only "change our reaction to stress," Benson said.

He is director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, which offers courses, services, and therapy, and conducts research. It's a busy time: The institute has been inundated with calls from schools across the country looking for ways to help students reduce anxiety in their lives. It has heard from the Department of Defense, which is interested in helping wounded soldiers deal with stress. Twice a week, Benson and his colleagues conduct anti-stress workshops at MGH. Lately, the hospital has been offering information sessions about retirement planning during times of financial turmoil. The sessions include the relaxation response.

"It is nothing new," Benson tells the hospital staff, reassuringly. "People usually bring it out by repeating a word, a sound, or a prayer. It can be secular or religious. Your choice. It could be 'love,' 'peace,' 'calm.' If you're Catholic, you have it made. You can say 'Ave Maria,' or 'Hail Mary, full of grace.' "

Benson believes the relaxation response is more relevant than ever today. He elicits it himself every morning (not disclosing his word), and it seems to work pretty well, judging by how calmly he responds when he accidentally spills a glass of water on his desk, soaking some papers and trickling down on his pants. "It doesn't matter!" he said cheerfully, mopping up the mess. "It will dry!"

He is a compact, dapper man in a blazer and tie emblazoned with little elephants; he has the affable, avuncular manner of a television doctor. His professional path has been anything but traditional though, taking him down a road where, three decades ago, self-respecting physicians dared not go, namely the interface of medicine and the mind.
His clinical vocabulary is sprinkled with terms that would still cause the blood pressure of some doctors to spike, like "self-healing" and "the power of belief." He likens his approach to medicine to a "three-legged stool," balanced equally by traditional interventions like medication and surgery, and by "self-care" approaches like the relaxation response.

Benson was first drawn to this field in the late 1960s when he was a cardiologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. He was curious about why so many people's blood pressure was higher in their doctors' offices than it was when they measured it themselves at home. He speculated it was because they were nervous, and that there might be a relationship between stress and high blood pressure.

His theory might not seem radical now, but his colleagues thought he was "bizarre," said Benson, who still sounds a bit miffed. "It was a different world then, a time when the phrase 'it's all in your head' was a pejorative in medicine."

He decided to do a research fellowship at Harvard Medical School's physiology department to investigate the link between stress and high blood pressure. His theory took a big leap forward when he did experiments with practitioners of transcendental meditation. "The facts were incontrovertible," Benson wrote in his book. "With meditation alone, the T.M. practitioners brought about striking physiologic changes - a drop in heart rate, metabolic rate, and breathing rate - that I would subsequently label 'the Relaxation Response.' "

He defines this as "an inducible, physiologic state of quietude," a way to become focused, keep the mind from racing, and decrease the heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, and ultimately relieve a host of stress-related conditions from migraines to asthma to depression.

It was a hard sell among medical academics, and so for years Benson had two parallel careers - cardiology and teaching "to maintain respectability," and mind-body research to satisfy his passion. "They thought he was nuts," said Ann Webster, a health psychologist at the Benson-Henry Institute, who has worked with Benson for 22 years. "I'd give talks about [the mind/body effect] and I had people in the audience - mostly medical people - almost shout at me. Or they would get up and walk out."

Not anymore. "I don't think you could say that the entire house of medicine is completely on board with [the mind/body connection]," says Dr. Bruce Auerbach, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. "But I think people generally accept there is a relationship."

Benson, however, is always looking for converts to his approach, of "slowly, inexorably spreading it through the hospital." He interrupted an interview in his office to make his case. "Let me show you how I teach the experiential component," he said, without preamble.

Declining doesn't seem to be an option. He tells me to pick a word, short phrase, or prayer to repeat silently. "Close your eyes," Benson continues, in the same practiced way he addresses the hospital personnel. "Relax your feet, your calves, your thighs. Shrug your shoulders, roll your head around and sit at ease, without movement, and breathe slowly."

On each "out" breath, I am to silently repeat my focus word. "You will find other thoughts coming to mind," he predicted correctly. He's right. Like how I managed to lose control of this interview. "They are normal, they are natural, and should be expected. Just say, 'Oh well,' and return to your repetition." I started eliciting the response, but thoughts intruded again. I don't have time for this, I was thinking. Oh well.

I tried again, repeating my focus word. What's he doing while I'm doing all this breathing? Oh well. I got my answer 10 minutes later when the exercise was over: Benson had been counting my breaths. He reported they were down from 14 per minute when I began the exercise to 10 per minute at the end.

"This should be done once or twice daily for 10 to 20 minutes," Benson prescribed. "I predict you'll have more clarity of mind, be calmer, and feel more in control."
My mind was clearer, and so I posed the question that I'd been thinking about since I read his book. Who has time to close their eyes for 20 minutes, once or twice a day?
"Those minutes will pay off in efficiency," Benson said, deftly sidestepping the question. "Isn't that worth 10 to 20 minutes?


Ingrid Jones said...

Brilliant post Werner, thanks. You've saved me £400 (and others £640!) and a whole load of heartache. My spirits feel lifted after reading the article. I like how Dr Benson has given his advice on how to meditate free of charge which I think is how it should be. Here's looking forward to learning much more about Dr Benson and his work. Meanwhile, I shall see if I can order his book from Amazon and give it a review. Hope you will do the same. For future reference, I have filed a copy of your post at two of my blogs Meditation for Military and Meditation for ME/CFS. thanks again. Your post has made my day. Bye for now.

Dr. Brian Horsfield said...

Ingrid, Benson did his initial research on TM and then produced his own version of meditation without reference to the ancient body of knowledge from India on meditation. Is it as good as TM? Here's how one doctor responds:

Dr. Vernon Barnes: Unfortunately, no. Comparative research has shown that the various forms of meditation do not produce the same effects. Because each kind of meditation practice engages the mind in it’s own way, there’s no reason to expect the same results from the various methods or that scientific research on the Transcendental Meditation program will apply to other practices.

There have been studies comparing the effects of the TM technique, Zen, Mindfulness, Tibetan Buddhist and Vipassana meditations, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Benson’s Relaxation Response—examining such factors as brainwave patterns, levels of rest, and benefits for mind and body. While some other forms of meditation have been found to produce good effects in specific areas, these various practices have their own aims and are not necessarily intended to produce the broad range of benefits that result from the Transcendental Meditation technique.

Neural imaging and EEG studies indicate that TM practice creates a unique brain pattern: it is the only meditation technique known to create widespread brainwave coherence. The TM technique also produces deeper rest than other practices, and studies show the technique to be more effective at reducing anxiety and depression and increasing self-actualization.


Dr. David Leffler said...

Here is more information regarding the informative post by Dr. Brian Horsfield.

According to research scientist Dr. David Orme-Johnson:

"Randomized controlled research has found that the Transcendental Meditation technique is more effective than Mindfulness Meditation, meditation techniques modeled on TM, [bold emphasis is mine] concentration meditation, mantra meditation, napping, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

Five systematic quantitative reviews of all the data, called meta-analyses, found that the Transcendental Meditation technique is superior to all other forms of meditation and relaxation studied for lowering anxiety, reducing drug and alcohol abuse, decreasing cigarette consumption, improving psychological health, and increasing self-actualization."

For a summary of this research please go to:

Also, for more information see: "Are All Meditations the Same? Comparing the Neural Patterns of Mindfulness Meditation, Tibetan Buddhism practice "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion," and the Transcendental Meditation Technique."

Dr. Fred Travis gave this talk at the Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona, April 2006. The slides from his presentation and other information are available online at:

Niel said...

I have a copy of Dr Benson's book, and I must say that his technique works.

Werner K said...

I am waiting for my copy.

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