Meditation, Not Meds
The doctor who invented the relaxation response on the science of stress relief
Jesse Lefkowitz / www.jesse-lefkowitz.com
Herbert Benson is the father of modern mind-body medicine. From the late 1960s onward, his breakthrough research has demonstrated that the “relaxation response,” which can be elicited through a variety of methods—including meditation—is a natural antidote to stress.
A graduate of Wesleyan University and the Harvard Medical School, Benson is the author or coauthor of over 180 scientific publications and 12 books. In 2006 he became director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Here, Benson describes his discovery of the relaxation response and its potential for filling a major gap in contemporary health care.
In the early 1970s, you published the first major research articles on meditation and the relaxation response. Please summarize your discoveries and tell us how you felt when you realized their importance.
What we found was that when people practiced Transcendental Meditation, there were a set of profound physiologic changes that were opposite to those of stress. Namely, decreased metabolism, decreased blood pressure, decreased heart rate, decreased rate of breathing, and also slower brain waves. These findings were performed at Harvard Medical School in the late 1960s, in the very laboratory in which Walter B. Cannon had defined the fight-or-flight response back in the early 20th century; he found increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased rate of breathing, increased blood flow to the muscles and called it “fight-or-flight,” or emergency response.
The importance of this is that 60 to 90 percent of visits to doctors are in the mind-body, or stress-related, realm. They are poorly treated by drugs or surgery. So initially, I felt that this was a very important finding, that in our minds we have the capability to bring forth a response, opposite to the fight-or-flight response, that could have therapeutic value. Our teams labeled it the relaxation response, and we discovered that this physiologic state has been practiced for millennia.
It is elicited by using two steps. The first is a repetition, which could be a word, a sound, a prayer, a phrase, or even a repetitive movement. The second step is, when other thoughts come to mind, you disregard them and come back to the repetition. This would bring forth the same physiologic changes that were brought about by the practice of Transcendental Meditation.
We recognized the importance of this immediately. We recognized that what we were doing was putting numbers on what people had been doing for thousands of years, be it through yoga, meditation, repetitive prayer, tai chi, qigong, jogging, knitting, or crocheting. It didn’t matter. There was one response brought forth by scores of techniques that had a scientific definition for the first time.
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