The doctor who invented the relaxation response on the science of stress relief
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.
Most meditation techniques originally developed in religious or spiritual traditions. One of the groundbreaking aspects of your work was that you sought to retain the essence of such traditional methods while removing the religious, sectarian, and culture-specific overlays, and thus you were able to use the relaxation response in health care settings for people of all backgrounds. How important was it to go that route?
I thought it was fundamental, because if it were only Eastern meditation many people of different belief systems wouldn’t pay attention to it. What we were doing was giving the explanation that our own culture—all cultures—has the same capacity to bring forth this response. The important feature there was that people, patients, subjects be given the choice of a technique that they believed in. It could be religious, it could be secular. It could be sitting quietly, it could be during movement. We teach them all and adapt them by taking into account the beliefs and culture of the patient, to make it more universal.
Were there complaints from people who felt that you had compromised the essence of the traditional meditation techniques and that something crucial was lost in translation?
The main criticisms were coming from practitioners of specific techniques who felt that theirs was superior to others. Generally, though, we’ve found people of all traditions saying, “Isn’t it wonderful that we can choose our own.”
Aside from the physiological effects of the relaxation response, have you also found psychological benefits? Can meditation, or the relaxation response, be incorporated into psychotherapy?
Without question. The conditions in which the relaxation response is found to be effective include anxiety, mild and moderate depression, and excessive anger and hostility. They are all effectively treated by regularly evoking the relaxation response. It’s very important to note that health and well-being is akin to a three-legged stool. One leg is pharmaceuticals. The second leg is surgery and other procedures. There has to be a third leg, and that leg is self-care. Within that self-care leg we have the relaxation response, nutrition, exercise, the beliefs of the patient, socialization, and cognitive restructuring. So you see, when we say that the relaxation response is effective in many mental disorders, it does not preclude, nor is it meant to preclude, the simultaneous use of appropriate medications or surgeries.
If the relaxation response could be manufactured as a pill, it would probably be considered malpractice not to prescribe it. Do you find that non-pharmaceutical, non-surgical approaches are held to a higher standard?
To answer that properly, we have to pay attention to the fact that over 150 years ago, there were no effective medications. There was quinine for malaria and there was the juice of limes for scurvy, but other than that we had nothing. Then, with the definition of bacteria with Koch and Pasteur, and the incredible discovery of penicillin, these successes were so awesome, so breathtaking, that we looked away from the older methods. Penicillin could cure pneumonia, at a time when a majority of those who contracted it died. Then we developed drugs like streptomycin that could treat tuberculosis. . . . These were fantastic. We came to believe that that’s all that we needed, overlooking the fact that even when all of these wonderful therapies were incorporated, some 60 to 90 percent of visits to doctors still involved stress-related factors. So to have a truly balanced medicine, we need not only the surgery, not only the pharmaceutical approaches, but also self-care.
Is it held to a higher standard? Yes, probably because of these awesome successes of the other therapies. But they’re not complete.
How widely has the relaxation response spread in hospitals, in schools, and elsewhere?
When we started our work in the late 1960s, about 7 percent of the population was using mind-body approaches. Now, when you include prayer for self-healing, over 50 percent of people are regularly using a technique that evokes the relaxation response. But these techniques are multitudinous. It’s not just meditation; it’s prayer, yoga, tai chi. A whole series of mind-body effects have that common result of the relaxation response. So it’s widespread.
What’s bothersome is that many consider it alternative medicine, or complementary medicine, or integrative medicine. In truth, it’s simply part of our traditional medicine because it’s now scientifically proven and shouldn’t be held to a different standard.
What are you most passionate about these days?
First of all, I am very pleased that I’ve lived long enough to see that what was originally ridiculed is now widely accepted. And wouldn’t it be nice if there were a truly balanced three-legged stool where we could combine our phenomenal successes in pharmacology and surgery, along with helping ourselves help ourselves?
It occurs to me that if the relaxation response was broadly practiced as a normal first-stage approach, there would be far less need for the other two legs of the stool, the drugs and surgery.
You’re absolutely correct, and that’s why we’re striving to have this in our school systems in the United States.
To what extent has that happened?
This is the work of Marilyn Wilcher, senior director of the Benson-Henry Institute. It’s widely recognized to be important. The issue is that the school systems don’t have enough money to provide training. But it helps the children themselves not only in their struggles with the manifestations of stress—not only anxiety, insomnia, and bellyaches—but also with drug abuse, violence, and alcohol abuse. The schools recognize this. They want it. That’s why we’re trying to federalize this if we can.
One of the premier prep schools in the United States, Phillips Exeter Academy, now has every single student there learning the relaxation response. It’s in many of our ghetto schools and in many other school systems.
Not only will it be treating the children, but as they get older they’ll remember that they have a capacity within themselves to heal themselves.
Daniel Redwood is a professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College in Overland Park, Kansas, and editor in chief of Health Insights Today and The Daily HIT. Reprinted from Nexus (July-Aug. 2011), the Boulder-based magazine serving as Colorado’s healthy-living connection since 1980. www.nexuspub.com