The Relaxation Response

The relaxation response can be described as a set of parasympathetic nervous system responses that counters the stress response and relieves stress.

Here we provide a number of relaxation techniques and exercises that activate this response and fight stress.

It may be very difficult to control some causes of stress...the irate boss, the traffic jam and long commutes to work, or an unrelenting schedule...

BUT that doesn’t mean that you need to be passive to the effects of stress.

While it may not be possible to control all the causes of stress you can choose to counter the effects of stress which may be harmful to you.

In scientific studies conducted at Harvard University, Dr Benson developed the relaxation response, a meditation technique that activates the body's natural physiological changes that aid in protecting you from distress.

How the relaxation response counters the effects of stress

Stress, Relaxation and the Body

The fight or flight response can be described as a set of sympathetic nervous system responses.

The relaxing response counters the stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

This response was first described by Herbert Benson MD, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

It activates the parasympathetic system resulting in a reduced heart rate and blood pressure, a slowing down of your breathing and a restoration of your body back to an overall healthier balance.

Thus the response helps to counter the effects of stress on the body and mind.

The table below shows how the fight and flight response can be countered by the body's natural relaxation effect.

Physiological Changes in the Fight and Flight Response and the Relaxation Effect

The Body's Physiology

Heart Rate

Blood Pressure

Muscle Tension

Metabolism A

Breathing Rate

Fight or Flight Response






The Relaxation Response






It is important to note that these are both natural states of the body that are activated by the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

What Dr Benson discovered was that it is possible to deliberately activate this response through his technique.

Dr Benson’s Relaxation Response

Studying practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM), Dr Benson developed a different technique that had a much lower price tag than TM but had a similar good effect on the mind and the body.

The following technique is adapted from Dr Benson’s “The Relaxation Response” (1975, p. 114-115):

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed.
  2. Relax your muscles. Start at your feet and progress up to your face. Try to keep these muscles relaxed throughout.
  3. Inhale and exhale through your nose. As you exhale, say the word "ONE" silently to yourself. Breathe naturally and easily.
  4. Do this for 10 to 20 minutes. Don't set an alarm, but sit with a clock in view if necessary.
  5. When you notice your mind wandering (which it surely will) just notice it and passively bring your attention back the word "ONE".
  6. Do this 1 or 2 times a day but not within 2 hours of eating a meal.

Note: I generally like to replace the word "ONE" with "CALM" and "RELAXED".

I do this for a number of reasons, but primarily because 'ONE' could have connotations of competitiveness that may work against the practice. I have found that the words "CALM" and "RELAXED" have worked well in session with clients.

Other relaxation techniques that activate the relaxation effect

Over a number of years of experimentation, the relaxation effect is found to be consistently activated across a variety of relaxation techniques.

Some of these include:

  • Meditation. Meditation reduces oxygen consumption, the respiratory rate, heart rate, and blood pressure (among patients with elevated blood pressure).

    Meditation also increases alpha brain waves, a a brain wave that is characteristic of relaxed minds.

    One such meditation that has been studied by Dr Benson is transcendental meditation.

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This deep muscle relaxation technique involves the systematic tensing and relaxing of different muscle groups.

    Progressive muscle relaxation elicits some of the physiological changes of the relaxation effect, such as reduced muscle tension, a common symptom of stress.

  • Hypnosis for relaxation. Self hypnosis elicits many of the same physiological changes as the relaxation response.

    For example, hypnosis for relaxation reduces oxygen consumption, respiratory rate, and heart rate.

  • Yoga. Yoga not only stretches the muscles but has a relaxing effect that goes beyond stress relief to improved health and well-being.

    These hatha yoga poses relax different body parts and increase body awareness.

  • Guided imagery. The imagination has long been used as a tool for stress relief.

    This guided imagery meditation relaxes your mind and soothes your body.

  • Breathing for relaxation. Breathing as a relaxation technique is probably the simplest and one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and anxiety.

    These breathing and relaxation techniques are simple and quick to use.

Search here for other relaxation techniques

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