The "Relaxation Response" is a powerful meditative technique that effectively reduces stress. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist, researcher and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, coined the term in his book, The Relaxation Response, first published in 1975. The term refers to an inborn capacity of the body to enter into a special state characterized by lowered heart rate, a decreased rate of breathing, lowered blood pressure and an overall reduction in the speed of the metabolic processes. The changes produced by this response counteract the harmful consequences and uncomfortable feelings of stress. This form of meditation has been an effective tool in treating medical conditions such as hypertension, angina, sleep disorders and chronic pain.

In his extensive and robust research on meditation, Benson identified four important components in the elicitation of the Relaxation Response, two of which -- repetition and a passive attitude -- must be present in order for this special state to occur. The four components are:

o A quiet environment
o Repetition of a word, a sound, a phrase, a prayer or a fixed gaze at an object
o A passive attitude of disregarding everyday thoughts and worries that inevitably come to mind, returning to your repetition
o A comfortable position

In his subsequent book, Beyond the Relaxation Response: How to Harness the Healing Power of Your Personal Beliefs (1984), Dr. Benson presents his findings regarding the advantage of using belief or faith-based words as mental devices. He notes that the more a person's beliefs are integrated into the procedure, the more likely one is to reap the advantages of the "Faith Factor."

For optimal benefit, the Relaxation Response should be practiced for 15 to 20 minutes twice each day on an empty stomach. After you have been regularly using this form of meditation, you'll find that you have the ability to evoke "mini Relaxation Responses" whenever you choose to do so. This is a very effective tool in combating stress and anxiety. Simply use your word or phrase on the "out breath" a number of times. And don't be discouraged if it takes a lot of practice before this starts to feel natural. The steps outlined by Dr. Benson are as follows:

STEP 1. Pick a brief word, phrase or short prayer that is part of your belief system. The word or phrase should be easy to pronounce and easy to remember. If a belief-based word does not come to mind, choose a word that evokes a neutral or positive response, such as "one, peace or love." During the exercise you will be repeating this word or phrase as you exhale naturally.

STEP 2. Choose a comfortable position, any position that will not disturb your thoughts and will not put you to sleep. Do not cross your legs.

STEP 3. Close your eyes. Relax your muscles. Start with your feet, then your calves, thighs, and abdomen. Relax your head, neck and shoulders. Stretch and relax your arms and hands and let them drop naturally onto your lap.

STEP 4. Become aware of your breathing and start using your word or phrase on the out breath. Breathe slowly and naturally without forcing the rhythm. Continue to repeat silently your chosen word or phrase always on the out breath.

STEP 5. Maintain a passive attitude. Thoughts will inevitably enter your mind as you sit quietly repeating your personal phrase. You may even see mental images or patterns that distract you from your word. Remember, they do not matter. These lapses are natural. Respond to them in an unconcerned way. Don't try to force them out of your mind. Passively say to yourself "oh well" and then slip back gently to the repetition. Even if a thought or image persists from start to finish, just tell yourself that's okay. If you are distracted by an itch or tight clothing, go ahead and scratch or rearrange your clothing to become more comfortable.

STEP 6. Continue for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep a watch or a clock handy and check it now and then. If the time has not elapsed, close your eyes and return to the repetition.

STEP 7. When the time has elapsed, sit quietly with your eyes closed for a minute or two. Stop repeating your word or phrase. Allow your regular thoughts to enter your mind again. Open your eyes slowly and sit quietly for another minute or two.

You can find more techniques for relaxation and guided imagery in my book, It's Your Little Red Wagon... Six Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (Embrace the Power of Positive Psychology and Live Your Dreams), available on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2009. Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D.

Author's Bio: 

Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D., has spent close to three decades helping individuals thrive and improve their lives through her work as a licensed psychologist, author and life coach. An expert in human behavior and motivation, Dr. Esonis specializes in the burgeoning field of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of optimal human functioning and the core strengths that can lead to the achievement of one's personally-defined goals.

Her most recent book, It's Your Little Red Wagon... 6 Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (Embrace the Power of Positive Psychology and Live Your Dreams!), is Dr. Esonis's contribution to the field of Positive Psychology, presenting proven success factors and strength-building techniques that can lead individuals to a life of purpose, motivation and happiness. It is available on Amazon.com.

Dr. Esonis earned her doctoral degree at Boston College and currently maintains a life coaching practice in the San Diego area. She also teaches Positive Psychology in the Extended Learning Program at California State University San Marcos. To learn more about the power of Positive Psychology and to order her latest book, visit her website at PositivePathLifeCoaching.com.