For more than forty years, the Benson-Henry Institute has been a leader in the field of mind body medicine, studying the numerous ways stress impacts health and well-being, and developing treatments to alleviate it.
About the benson-henry institute for mind body medicine
The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine is a non-profit scientific and educational organization dedicated to research, teaching, and clinical application of mind/body medicine and its integration into all areas of health. It accomplishes these objectives by:
- Documenting and furthering the understanding of mind/body medicine through research
- Providing treatment for patients each year with stress-related illnesses through the Institute
- Teaching medical students and training post-doctoral fellows and health care professionals to integrate mind/body interactions into their work through the Center for Training in Mind/Body Medicine
- Teaching students and educators life management skills through the Education Initiative
MIND BODY MEDICINE HISTORY
When Herbert Benson, MD started medical practice as a young cardiologist more than 40 years ago, the term "mind/body medicine" was unknown. In the late 1960's his work linking stress to physical health was contrary to existing medical thought. It is quite gratifying today to be advancing this now scientifically-validated field at a time of unprecedented interest in the unity of mind and body.
Proving the mind/body connection
Dr. Benson's work in establishing the scientific basis for the mind/body connection started when he noticed that his patients had elevated blood pressure during regular check-ups. To test his hypothesis that stress was the cause, he returned to his alma mater, Harvard Medical School, to try to establish a model for stress-induced hypertension. He and his colleagues trained squirrel monkeys to either raise or lower blood pressure using operant conditioning technology. They found that the monkeys who were "rewarded" for higher blood pressure went on to develop hypertension due to their own behaviors.
While this study was underway, Dr. Benson was approached by young practitioners of Transcendental Meditation who asked him to study their blood pressure. They believed they had lower blood pressures as a result of their meditation practice. This type of study was virtually unheard of at the time, but he did consent, after much deliberation. Robert Keith Wallace and Dr. Benson measured metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, brain waves, and rate of breathing - both when the subjects sat quietly for 20 minutes and when they meditated for 20 minutes. And what they found was striking.
Through the simple act of changing their thought patterns, the subjects experienced decreases in their metabolism, rate of breathing and heart rate, and brain activity. These changes appeared to be the opposite of the commonly-known "fight-or-flight," or stress, response and Dr. Benson labeled it the "relaxation response." The relaxation response is the foundation of mind/body medicine as practiced at the BHI. Dr. Benson performed these studies in the very room at Harvard Medical School where Walter B. Cannon had discovered the “fight or flight” response 50 years before.
The relaxation response
Dr. Benson noted that the relaxation response can be elicited by a variety of meditative techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, repetitive prayer, chi gong, tai chi, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, jogging, even knitting.
The necessary two basic steps, which he found to be present in practices in almost every culture, are: the repetition of a sound, word, phrase prayer, or movement, and the passive setting aside of intruding thoughts and returning to the repetition. These two steps break the train of everyday thinking. From the earliest studies to the present, the BHI's work shows that by using your mind in a certain way - to elicit the relaxation response - measurable, predictable, and reproducible physiological changes occur that can be useful in countering the unhealthy fight-or-flight or stress response.
A healing tool
Over the past 30 years, Dr. Benson and his colleagues have treated thousands of people for medical problems that were poorly addressed by conventional medical practice. He views medicine as a three-legged stool: pharmaceuticals are the first leg, surgery and procedures the second. Mind/body interactions (the relaxation response, nutrition, exercise and spirituality) comprise the third, "self-care", leg. Since roughly 60 to 90% of doctor visits are for conditions related to stress, the mind/body or self-care approach is a vital component of effective health care.
The Benson-Henry Institute's clinical programs treat patients with a combination of relaxation response techniques, proper nutrition and exercise, and reframing of negative thinking patterns, in conjunction with the beliefs of patients. Clinical studies over the years have shown the effectiveness of these interventions on a wide range of medical problems caused or made worse by stress, such as hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, pain, insomnia, allergies, premenstrual syndrome and menopause symptoms, and infertility, among many others. Practicing the relaxation response daily can enhance the immune system and make one more resistant to the harmful effects of constant stress.
Today, highly-successful clinical programs exceeding 9,000 patient visits per year are offered at the Benson-Henry Institute and affiliate sites in the United States. In addition, the Institute continues to bring relaxation response-based programs to classroom teachers and students, the corporate sector, and the general public, and training to health care professionals from the U.S. and around the world.
New research vistas
The BHI has produced scientific evidence that the relaxation response is effective. With a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute continues to investigate the basic scientific components of the relaxation response as well as its clinical application.
The BHI has also extended a previously published study that utilized brain imaging to examine the ways the relaxation response influences the brain and, hence, the body.
The BHI is studying the best way to use biomarkers to characterize the effects of the relaxation response on the stress systems through an NCCAM RO-1 grant. Included in this study is our recent methodology using transcriptome analysis and bioinformatics to study the effects of relaxation response on WBC gene expression and metabolic functions in normal as well as clinical populations.