According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one out of every three American adults has high blood pressure. Add in psychological stress factors (work-life balance, job security, interpersonal struggles, or anything else that keeps us up at night) and it's no wonder that conditions like heart disease and stroke are among the leading causes of death for men and women in the country.
Between unhealthy eating patterns, lack of sleep, and, in some cases, substance use, the behaviors many people turn to mitigate stress in the short term can not only exacerbate the feeling in the long term, but increase blood pressure. But there is a practice you can adopt to relieve stress and ease tension without threatening heart health: the relaxation response.
What Is the Relaxation Response?
Developed by Herbert Benson, MD, originally at Harvard Medical school and now at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, the relaxation response is a six-step technique designed to quiet your mind and calm your body in times of stress. The technique has been tested extensively and written up in Dr. Benson's book, "The Relaxation Response." Because it requires no additional tools, it can be used nearly anywhere and at any time. For best results, try the relaxation response once or twice a day for 10-20 minutes. With practice, you'll find that the response comes with less and less effort.
Step 1: Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
Step 2: Close your eyes.
Step 3: Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep each muscle relaxed.
Step 4: Breathe easily and naturally through your nose, becoming mindful of each breath as you do.
Step 5: As you breathe out, say the word "one" silently to yourself.
Step 6: Continue this process for 10-20 minutes, keeping your eyes gently closed. (You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm.) When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes.
- Don't worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation; maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation at its own pace
- Distracting thoughts may come to your mind as you work through the process. Instead of dwelling on them, try to let them pass and return to repeating "one" as you breathe out
- Avoid practicing the relaxation response within two hours after any meal, as it may make you tired
This article originally appeared on MGHBeFit.com, an employee wellness program sponsored by MGH Nutrition and Food Services.