Meditation May Reduce Stress and Improve Health

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, PhD

A simple technique practiced for as few as 10 minutes per day can help you control stress, decrease anxiety, improve cardiovascular health, and achieve a greater capacity for relaxation.

The meditative technique called the "relaxation response" was pioneered in the U.S. by Harvard physician Herbert Benson in the 1970s. The technique has gained acceptance by physicians and therapists worldwide as a valuable adjunct to therapy for symptom relief in conditions ranging from cancer to AIDS.

When our bodies are exposed to a sudden stress or threat, we respond with a characteristic "fight or flight" response. This is sometimes called an "adrenaline rush" because the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine are released from the adrenal glands, resulting in an increase in blood pressure and pulse rate, faster breathing, and increased blood flow to the muscles.

The relaxation response is a technique designed to elicit the opposite bodily reaction from the "fight or flight" response -- a state of deep relaxation in which our breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure, and metabolism are decreased. Training our bodies on a daily basis to achieve this state of relaxation can lead to enhanced mood, lower blood pressure, and reduction of lifestyle stress.

The relaxation response technique consists of the silent repetition of a word, sound, or phrase while sitting quietly with eyes closed for 10 to 20 minutes. This should be done in a quiet place free of distractions. Sitting is preferred to lying down in order to avoid falling asleep. Relax your muscles starting with the feet and progressing up to your face. Breathe though your nose in a free and natural way.

You can choose any word or phrase you like. You can use a sound such as "om," a word such as "one" or "peace," or a word with special meaning to you. Intruding worries or thoughts should be ignored or dismissed to the best of your ability by focusing on the repetition. It's OK to open your eyes to look at a clock while you are practicing, but do not set an alarm. When you have finished, remain seated, first with your eyes closed and then with your eyes open, and gradually allow your thoughts to return to everyday reality.

The technique requires some practice and may be difficult at first, but over time almost anyone can learn to achieve the desired state of relaxation. Dr. Benson, who originally described the technique, recommends practicing the technique once or twice a day. He recommends not practicing the relaxation response within two hours after eating a meal because the digestive process may interfere with the technique.

The relaxation response can also be elicited through other meditative and relaxation techniques. No matter how the relaxation state is achieved, the physical and emotional consequences of stress can be reduced through regular practice.

Reference:

eMedicine Live, Mindfulness Meditation, http://www.emedicinelive.com/index.php/Mental-Health/mindfulness-meditation-for-stress-reduction.html


Last Editorial Review: 9/9/2009




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