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The Relaxation Response

The term "Relaxation Response" was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. The response is defined as your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.


The Relaxation Response is essentially the opposite reaction to the “fight or flight” response. According to Dr. Benson, using the Relaxation Response is beneficial, as it counteracts the physiological effects of stress and the fight or flight response.


It is common for individuals experiencing the fight-or-flight response to describe uncomfortable physiological changes like muscle tension, headache, upset stomach, racing heartbeat, and shallow breathing. The fight-or-flight response can become harmful when elicited frequently. When high levels of stress hormones are secreted often, they can contribute to a number of stress-related medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, GI diseases, adrenal fatigue, and more.


The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that changes our body’s responses to stressful situations, both internal and external. It is as much an inborn mechanism as the stress response, and it is vital for reducing the negative effects of physical, emotional, and psychological wear and tear on our bodies. The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital — a world leader in the study, advancement, and clinical practice of mind-body medicine — outlines the changes the relaxation response elicits: your metabolism decreases, heart beats slower, breathing becomes less shallow, muscles unwind, and blood pressure decreases.


Dr. Benson describes the Relaxation Response as a physical state of deep relaxation that engages the other part of our nervous system—the parasympathetic nervous system. Research has shown that regular use of the Relaxation Response can help any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety disorders, and others.


Massage, meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, tai chi, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization all have research to support their ability to call forth the relaxation response. Choose a practice that resonates with you, that fits within your lifestyle, and that you will be able to do regularly. Doing it daily is optimal because it will create the most powerful and enduring changes. When learning the basics of a technique, set aside 5 or 10 minutes a day to start. Many people find it easier to stick with a practice when it is scheduled first thing in the morning, while others like to end their day using relaxation to unwind before going to sleep.


At Willow and Water, we offer both massage and meditation as our main modalities for achieving the Relaxation Response and will often include breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualisation as part of our practice. Why not book a session today?

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