Recently I was in the waiting room at my physical therapist’s office, reading The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson, M.D. The receptionist asked me about the book and I told her how Dr. Benson discovered that our nervous systems need both some stress, building the tone of the nervous system, and some relaxation, allowing the nervous system to rest and recover. She looked at me blankly and said, “Well everybody knows that!”

When Dr. Benson wrote the book back in the 70’s everybody did not know that. When I started doing yoga and meditation, also in the 70’s, girls in my high school said to me “You sit there and think of nothing? What good is that? Thinking of nothing is stupid!”

Even though today everyone may know that relaxation, and even meditation, are good for us, I don’t agree that everyone knows how to relax, or what relaxation is neurologically. Most of us don’t consciously relax very often. Relaxation can occur in sleep (but not always), in meditation or visualization, in enjoyable conversation with a friend or loved one, in exercise or sexual activity (but not always), in reading or listening to music (but not always). Gentle, repetitive activity that keeps the body busy but allows the mind to disengage. Yes, sitting and thinking of nothing.

Some of the activities we think of as relaxing – computer or video games, for instance, actually excite us and raise our stress levels. “Relaxing” by watching stressful or exciting shows on television does not trigger our relaxation response. When I had my first job out of college I used to go to the video parlor on my lunch hour and play PacMan. I would return to work so stressed out I could barely cope. I learned quickly that video games are not relaxing.

Migraineurs’ nervous systems are sensitive to stimuli, and the higher our stress load, the lower our resistance to migraine triggers. Strengthening the relaxation response helps to lower our stress load and raise our trigger threshold. In Breaking the Headache Cycle, Ian Livingstone, M.D. cites research showing that migraine frequency and severity can be reduced an average of 40% through regular practice of relaxation, while a study at the University of Rajasthan, India, found that “Three months of intensive yoga practice—one hour, five days per week—curbs frequency and intensity of migraines by 70 percent,” according to Liz Somes in Psychology Today.

If we take some time to strengthen our relaxation “muscles” daily, we improve our ability to handle stress. The most effective ways to build our relaxation response include deep breathing, meditation, moderate exercise, yoga and movement and stretching. Relaxation practice can also reduce pain during a Migraine attack and is useful for other chronic pain conditions as well.

It’s important to take breaks and relax – get up and walk away from your desk, close your eyes and breathe, stop and do your relaxation practice in the middle of your day. As you become more adept at relaxing, you will become able to feel the stress mount and know when it is time to disengage and trigger your relaxation response – like opening a valve to let some steam out.

Author's Bio: 

Megan Oltman is a migraineur, an entrepreneur, and a Migraine Management Coach, helping migraineurs and people with chronic illness manage their lives, keep working, start and maintain businesses, and live purposeful lives. She also practices as a professional divorce mediator. Over the years, she's been a practicing attorney, a free-lance writer, and a business coach and advisor. Megan has a free Migraine management course, The Six Keys to Manage your Migraines and Take Back your Life, available at takebackyourlifefrommigraine.com. Her writings on Migraine and more tools for managing life with Migraine can be found at freemybrain.com