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Triggering the Relaxation Response

Dr. Herbert Benson, currently director emeritus at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, popularized a term called the ‘relaxation response’ more than a decade ago. The state of mind and body that he describes is arrived at by utilizing ancient practices that have been around for centuries, though.

The ‘relaxation response’ is meant to be an antidote to the stress response, also called the ‘fight or flight’ response in the human body.


Here’s How Fight-or-Flight Normally Happens:

  1.   The hypothalamus in the brain activates two systems in the body when we experience a real, or even a perceived, threat. This system can be triggered with even low-level, pervasive stress that we experience from living in a modern world full of work demands, family expectations and the everyday grind of trying to get things done. The sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system both go into high gear once we experience any sort of stress.
  1.   The sympathetic nervous system initiates reactions in our body, and the adrenal-cortical system starts dumping stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into our blood stream. Changes in the heart rate and blood pressure ensue.
  1.   The body then becomes tense and highly alert.
  1.   The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) into the pituitary gland. This causes more than 30 different hormones to cascade into the blood stream to deal with the ‘threat’ that we face.

From here we begin to feel the ‘chill’ of fear and dread, as our blood retreats to our organs to keep us alive, and leaves the surface of our skin. Our muscles become tense, and we start to breath differently. Our pupils dilate. We have trouble focusing on small, detailed tasks, as they only true aim of the body becomes survival.


Fear Isn’t All Bad

Fear isn’t completely bad. It is a mechanism installed in our evolutionary make-up to keep us alive. If we weren’t afraid of jumping off a cliff or burning up if we got too close to a fire, then we likely wouldn’t live very long. The ‘fear’ gene was selected and passed on in our genes to help perpetuate our species, but there’s just one problem, though.


Modern Society Creates Constant Fear/Stress

Unfortunately, our nervous systems have not learned to mitigate the ongoing, low to moderate level stress that we deal with in everyday life. We have been conditioned by the current political, societal structure to fear constantly. While we might naturally fear nuclear war or the collapse of the economy, the constant media barrage and threat of these fear-inducing subjects is not natural for our nervous systems, and therefore, without a re-conditioning that we take up on our own, we stay in a constant wash of fear-based emotions and hormones.

This constant low-level stress eventually depletes our adrenal system, which is really only meant to deal with real threats, not manufactured threats, conditioned into society, and therefore it starts to stall out. The adrenal glands start to function below their normal level, and a host of additional health problems can begin to develop. Your immune system becomes depleted, you feel tired all the time and your entire quality of life starts to plummet.


How to Re-Condition the Body to Relax

The goal then, is to re-train the body and its adrenal/hormonal/immune system to be at peace. The aim is to create the opposite of the stress-response, and to exist in the ‘relaxation response’ as much as possible.



Meditation is one of the fastest ways to induce a deep, relaxed state in the body. There are now thousands of studies which link reduced stress and increased well-being with this practice. It doesn’t matter if you practice Buddhist insight, Zen, Vipassana, Transcendental or another type of meditation. Each and every one has been shown to alter how our nervous system responds to stimuli. If you want a ‘relaxation response’, start by simply observing your breath for ten minute a day and allowing your thoughts to revert to the observation of the rise and fall of the belly or the feeling of air as it passes through the nostrils, even as the mind tries to think of a million other things. This practice alone is profoundly changing.


Mantras are the ancient practice of using the subtle energy of our nerve endings in our hands (as well as our bodies) to alter our state of mind. By simply placing the first finger and thumb together, for example, we can induce a stress-relieving, anti-anxiety effect on our nervous systems. There are thousands of mantras you can practice, each having its own specific effect on your mind-body connection. Many of them address the ‘relaxation response.’

Be in Nature

Simply spending time in nature is one of the easiest ways to change our nervous system from a fight-or-flight state to a relaxed state. Studies have linked profound changes in mood, better concentration, higher rates of happiness and better memory with spending as little as an hour a day outside in a green space.

Eat Right, Supplement Better

A few foods that offer great stress-busting support are: dark chocolate, foods high in Omega 3s and all fruits and vegetables, but particularly foods like kale, spinach, rhubarb and other dark leafy greens. This also means that we’ll be too full to eat highly processed, dead foods which contribute to our levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. These foods soothe us without zapping our energy, so that we can tackle whatever comes our way.

Food can be our medicine. By eating leafy, green foods, vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, we can intake a host of enzymatic, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, which our bodies need to stay happy and healthy.

If we don’t get everything we need from our regular diet, supplementation with high quality herbs can help to reduce stress and help us stay in a relaxed state of mind, even in the face of massive obstacles.