A relaxation response is a term to describe several physiological changes in our bodies, which are the opposite of a stress response. A relaxation response differs from sleep or resting, and can be achieved through several different relaxation techniques (autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation), meditation, prayer, hypnosis, and yoga. During a relaxation response, several physiological changes occur. Our blood pressure drops, breathing rate decreases, heart rate slows down, and muscles relax. Oxygen consumption decreases and a drop in lactate levels are noted (high levels are associated with anxiety and low with tranquillity). Brainwave patterns also change and more low-frequency alpha, theta, and delta waves are measured, which are connected with rest and a relaxed state.
A relaxation response differs from a state of sleep. During sleep, a decrease in metabolism occurs in one to five hours, whereas during a relaxation response this decrease is seen after just three to five minutes. Brainwave patterns are also not the same during sleep as they are during meditation or relaxation.
Relaxation response: meditation, prayer, autogenic training, hypnosis, etc.
Herbert Benson started research into the relaxation response in the late 1960s. The first technique he observed was transcendental meditation and he was astonished by the results of this technique. He quickly realized his observation of the relaxation response was an unresearched area of the medical field. Although his first research was based on transcendental meditation, he remained open to other possible ways to elicit the relaxation response. Soon he and his colleagues observed several different approaches where this response could be and was present. Their research discovered there are two elements to every meditation and prayer that elicit a relaxation response. First a silent mental repetition of a comfortable sound and second a passive disregard of thoughts that intrude. Soon he discovered there are also western approaches that produce the relaxation response, such as autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation, and hypnosis. Interestingly when Schultz created autogenic training (around the 1920s) he observed heaviness in the limbs, a slowed heart rate, slowed breathing, a warm abdomen, and a cool forehead. These were actually observations of the relaxation response and autogenic training essentially focuses on the consequences of a relaxation response. This focus is achieved by a silent repetition, a slow heartbeat with a passive attitude of whatever thought may interfere with this phrase. Schultz called this passive concentration, and the similarity of autogenic training and meditation is easily noticed.
Benson and his colleagues researched the effect of the relaxation response on hypertension and found that it can lower the blood pressure of patients when stress is the predominant source of high blood pressure. The method also proved useful in those cases where white coat hypertension was the main reason for hypertension.
The immune system
Stress can affect our immune system and immunological diseases can be stress-related. Since the relaxation response reduces stress it is a valuable tool in fighting diseases related to the immune system, and relaxation response techniques are especially useful in fighting autoimmune diseases. For example, TaiChi and meditation, in combination with traditional medications, appear to be beneficial for patients with arthritis: the affected individuals seem to live better lives and may have better long-term clinical outcomes. In systemic sclerosis, RR (relaxation response) techniques have been recommended as a complementary therapy, due to their reported ability to shorten Raynand attacks.
The relaxation response helped women with breast cancer who were going through neoadjuvant chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy. They had better immunological scores and less circulating tumor necrosis than a control group. Relaxation frequency and self-rated imagery quality were also positively correlated with natural killer (NK) cell activity.
Relaxation response techniques have been demonstrated to be helpful in the treatment and prevention of atherosclerosis and endothelial dysfunction. Coronary artery disease is also associated with stress and relaxation response techniques have been successful in terms of symptomatic status, exercise capacity, risk factor profile, including a reduction in body weight, serum total cholesterol, LDL, triglyceride levels accompanied by an increase in HDL.
Stress also has the potential to actively trigger Myocardial infarction (MI) and the relaxation response (RR) counteracts the negative effects of activated stress responses and can be helpful in the treatment of this cardiac event. Positive effects have been described for short- and long-term outcomes and the RR has further been shown to enhance the physical and psychic status of patients after rehabilitation (following MI). After all, relaxation therapy consequently appears to improve the long-term prognosis of the cardiovascular system: it decreases future ischemic events and fatal MI.
The relaxation response is highly recommendable in treating anxiety or depression. Several RR techniques have been shown to help either anxiety or depression or both. It has been suggested that several different mechanisms play a part in alleviating these mental disorders. For now, it remains a useful option for those with mild depression or mild to moderate anxiety.
Many people with insomnia have rapid brain wave patterns that are typical when a person is under stress. Recent studies by psychologist Gregg Jacobs and his colleagues have shown that insomnia patients taught the relaxation response, together with other behavioral techniques, can learn to fall asleep more easily. On average, these patients fell asleep four times more rapidly after treatment, and their brain wave patterns slowed as well.
What to expect from a relaxation response?
The persistent practice of autogenic training or other RR technique can bring feelings of greater control over your life and leads to a sense that emotions can be brought under your control. One psychological benefit is a greater sense of self-assurance. The physical benefits are decreases in stress-related conditions and their symptoms.
Some positive effects of the relaxation response
- Stabilizes blood pressure
- Lowers heart rate and respiratory rate
- Reduces stress hormones
- Slows the aging process
- Improves mental functioning
- Improves brain wave coherence
- Improves the strength of the immune system
- Increases serotonin which influences mood and behavior. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, headaches and insomnia.
- Enhances energy, strength, and vigor.
- Decreases stress, anxiety, anxiety attacks, and depression
- Decreases the fear of death
- Increases the joy of living
- Increases positive emotions and overall attitude toward life
- Increases self-confidence
- Increases concentration and strengthens the mind
- Increases memory