During this time of COVID-19, many of us have never felt such a high, sustained level of stress.

Leaders of the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital say that their field, in turn, has never been more relevant for offering not only a measure of immediate relief but also powerful long-term health benefits.

“Humans have the innate capacity to fight the stress response with its opposite—the relaxation response—and it need only be practiced for 10 or so minutes every day to be effective,” says BHI founder Herbert Benson, MD. (See the video below on how to do it.)

BHI founder Herbert Benson, MD
BHI Founder Herbert Benson, MD

Benson began his career in the mind-body medicine field when the scientific community looked askance at it. “Fifty years ago, meditation was considered fringe, and the idea that it had any role in medical treatment, absurd,” begins a recent New England Journal of Medicine perspective by Michelle L. Dossett, PhD, MD, formerly of BHI and now at UC Davis; Gregory L. Fricchione, MD, current director of BHI and Benson.

Since then, research has emerged to reveal stress’s role in common ailments ranging from anxiety and depression to heart disease and chronic pain. “One of the main challenges facing modern medicine is stress-related, noncommunicable diseases. Sixty percent of deaths are attributable to these illnesses,” says Fricchione. Research has supported the role of the relaxation response in improved health outcomes for these conditions. Stunningly, studies have also pointed to the approach changing a person’s gene expression, activating certain genes that foster health and limiting the activation of other genes that may convey illness vulnerability.

Fricchione’s team runs a Stress Management and Resiliency Training (SMART) program for patients and clinicians. “We look at a person’s stress as a numerator, and their resilience as the denominator,” he says. “We try to increase that denominator by boosting resilience in a number of ways: social support, cognitive skills training, positive psychology, spiritual connectedness, sleep hygiene, nutrition and exercise. At the same time, we teach several meditative ways to elicit the relaxation response, thereby reducing the stress numerator. We hope to improve the mind-body health ratio and reduce vulnerability to stress-related illnesses.”

The current pandemic is a particular challenge for us biologically, Fricchione says: “The social support component is hard for us to do right now, but it’s crucial for us to try. It is encouraging to see how people are innovatively maintaining community ties.” Adds Benson: “The stress related to this pandemic won’t go away anytime soon. We have to do all we can to combat it.”

A Simple Path to the Relaxation Response

“Whereas some people elicit the relaxation response through physical activities like yoga or running, it can also be as simple as sitting in a quiet place, gently closing your eyes and repeating something, whether it be a sound, word, phrase or prayer,” says Herbert Benson, MD. “If your mind wanders, disregarding your thoughts by saying ‘Oh well’ and returning to the repetition. Continue this for 10 to 12 minutes—but don’t set an alarm, just peek at your clock or watch.”

Watch the video below to see Dr. Benson guide viewers through the method.