Our Stress and Relaxation Responses | How to Call Upon and Nurture Your Relaxation Response

How Do You Relax

“How do you relax? I swear I don’t know. Between my mind racing, panic attack symptoms, and chronic stress, I’m nervous as a jay bird. There has to be something I can draw upon to chill. Right?”

It’s important to note the relaxation response occurs automatically in response to physical stressors; however, such is not the case with psychological stressors. That means we have to learn to consciously generate the RR to counter the effects of excessive stress responses.

We began a two-part series last week on our stress and relaxation responses. Part 1 handled our stress response (fight/flight), and we’re going to wrap things up by digging-in to our relaxation response.

As I pointed-out in the first installment, everything you’re about to read comes from a great book, Say Good Night to Insomnia. Gregg D. Jacobs, PhD is the author, and a pioneer in CBT-I (cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia). Check-out his impressive work.

The Discovery of the Relaxation Response

Prior to the 1960s, voluntary control over the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – manages respiration, heart rate, etc. – was thought impossible. But later that same decade some cool discoveries in the world of biofeedback challenged that notion. And scientists soon discovered control over the ANS could, in fact, be achieved.

Seems the biofeedback outcomes were so impressive, scientists began studying other ANS-controlling mind/body techniques, such as meditation and relaxation.

Dr. Jacobs’ mentor, Dr. Herbert Benson, was one of the first scientists to conduct research on biofeedback, meditation, and relaxation techniques. After years of research, Benson was impressed by the fact that each of these techniques produced the same physiological quieting response.

He called it the Relaxation Response.

Benson proposed the RR is our body’s inborn counter-balancing mechanism to the stress response and can be used to – item-by-item – offset its damaging effects.

It’s important to note the RR occurs automatically in response to physical stressors; however, such is not the case with psychological stressors. And that means we have to learn to consciously generate the RR to counter the effects of excessive stress responses.

Is it any surprise that the RR is an effective treatment for all sorts of health concerns – anxiety disorders, hypertension, chronic pain, GI issues, blood sugar stabilization, a vulnerable immune system, insomnia, menopausal hot flashes, and more?

Calling Upon Our Relaxation Response

Dr. Benson could have left his work in the discovery process – job well done. However, he went on to define the four elements necessary to elicit the RR…

  1. A quiet place with eyes closed to minimize distractions
  2. A comfortable position and muscular relaxation
  3. A mental focusing device such as breathing, a word, or an image to shift the mind away from distracting thoughts
  4. Passive disregard of everyday thoughts

So with that foundation, here’s what it takes to actually call upon our RR…

  1. Relax the muscles throughout your body: Lying down or sitting comfortably, close your eyes and feel relaxation gradually spread. What you’re looking for are feelings such as warmth, heaviness, tingling, floating – or nothing. If you need help with muscle relaxation and/or breathing, there’s a nice script here.
  2. Establish a relaxed breathing pattern, the goal being abdominal breaths. Plenty on breathing in this Chipur piece.
  3. Direct your attention from everyday thoughts by using a mental focusing device that’s neutral and repetitive. Jacobs suggests words such as one, relax, peace, heavy. For many, it’s helpful to repeat the word silently with each exhaled breath. The mental focusing device can also be a visual image – a vacation spot, floating on a cloud, or a place of your creation.

It’s important to allow the RR to occur at its own pace. Don’t “try” to relax, or get upset if relaxation isn’t occurring. If distractions present, ignore them and return to your mental focusing device. Do your best to understand that quieting your mind isn’t easy – at first – during RR. With practice, however, your skills will improve.

Jacobs recommends practicing just about daily for 10-20 minutes. ‘Course, that means finding time. But you’re more likely to allocate time if you look at it as something that will improve mood, performance, and health – as important as eating well and exercising.

Hmmm. Jacobs suggests if we can’t find time for the RR, we’re likely the ones who need it the most.


Hey, how ’bout something Jacobs calls “minis?” He submits they’re a way to call upon the RR when only a very few minutes are at hand and your eyes can’t be closed (in a traffic jam, waiting in line, any anxiety-generating event).

A mini is an abbreviated RR. And it involves taking just a few moments to relax your muscles – particularly the neck, shoulders, and face – then practicing abdominal breathing and mental focusing techniques.

Minis offer two advantages – they can be used anytime and anywhere to cope with stressful situations, and they can be used more frequently than a full RR – and may end up being more effective than practicing the RR just once daily.

Let’s Close

So there you have the goods on our relaxation response (and the series). Huge to know and call upon when chronic stress, panic attack symptoms, and mind racing come-a-callin’. Actually, good to know for purposes of overall health enrichment.

Wondering if you’d be willing to share what you do to call upon your RR. Just head on down to the comment section…

I invite you to check-out my consultation and coaching | mentoring services. And take the time to eyeball 600+ Chipur titles. Appreciated!

  • robband February 11, 2015, 4:04 pm

    this is great Bill. I use some guided mediation audios / videos that seem to help me with getting to my RR state, or at least attempt to. One key thing for me is realizing that I need to acknowledge the random thoughts / body sensations that always crop up when I’m trying to relax and then move them along gently and then refocus. It’s not always easy, but one visual that works for me is to imagine putting them on a slow moving ‘conveyor belt’ running outside my awareness. I embrace the thought, think of it like a piece of luggage or a package sent to me by my anxious self, look it over well then send it on it’s merry way. It’s funny because when I do this I realize that a lot of the packages I send myself are the same ones just recycled. :) I’ve found that on days when I can squeeze in some guided meditation and really try to follow along with it my anxiety level seems more tolerable.

    • Chipur February 11, 2015, 5:30 pm

      Hey, robband – welcome back! Appreciate yesterday’s comment on the solar plexus piece https://chipur.com/solar-plexus-true-center-emotions-relief/ Let’s see if I can continue to give you reasons to return.

      The conveyor belt visual is excellent, and I like how you depersonalize it by assigning the thought to your “anxious self.” I often use an icebreaking ship cruising along in the Arctic Circle just bustin’ through. Really helps me cut through all that’s on my mind to get where I need to go. And, no doubt, using the visualizations consistently has great positive impact on the anxiety and mood stuff.

      Nice having your participation, robband…

      • robband February 11, 2015, 6:15 pm

        Thanks Bill – I really love your writing and the resources that are shared here. They’ve been a bright beacon of hope for me as I flounder around neck deep in increased waves of anxiety / panic that I seem to have been stuck in lately. Keep it going Bill – it’s wonderful!

      • Chipur February 11, 2015, 7:01 pm

        I appreciate that, robband. Comments like that make the hard work well worth while. And don’t think for a moment that I don’t remember what it’s like to be stuck – lost – in the woods. I do – all too well. And it’s foundational in my motivation to produce Chipur…


  • npeden February 13, 2015, 11:23 am

    i envision myself in a white tent, very diafonous in its construction. there is a bed there to rest and a desk if i want to write. the wind blows the flaps of the tent in a lovely way that makes me breathe deeply. the tent is high on a mountain top; the view is vast.. i am safe and enchanted with the grace of this abode.

    • Chipur February 13, 2015, 6:58 pm

      Dang, Nancy – you just lit up my relaxation response. I’m serious, pushed all the right buttons. That’s wonderful!

  • Patricia Miller February 14, 2015, 4:15 pm

    Here are a couple of things that have proven helpful for me.

    With respect to the “minis”, I put the tip of my tongue behind my upper teeth and then do some relaxation breathing. This basically forces my teeth and jaws apart, resulting in some relaxation in that particular point of tension, and of course the good breathing is also a nice soothing effort.

    As to the deeper relaxation response, since I am generally trying to pair it with sleep, I have used two words “Deep Sleep”. I use a combination of breathing and counting down from 5 to 1 telling myself I am going even deeper into a relaxed state with each series of breaths and number. At each number, I internally say the words “deep sleep” on an exhale. I go through the series usually four or five times with some progressive relaxation in between and visualization of my peaceful place. It works well for me and the consistency is an important part, so much so that just the words can now trigger a reduction in stress and I can use the breathing, words and counting down in an anxious time for a back-up “mini” when thing really reach internal chaos proportions.

    • Chipur February 14, 2015, 5:38 pm

      Excellent, Patricia – glad you stopped-in and shared. You always have well-considered and valuable contributions.

      Liking the RR and sleep combo. And, go figure, the info I shared in both articles comes from a non-med insomnia treatment book. You’re very disciplined in your work, aren’t you? I’m guessing it came from necessity. And look what’s occurred as a result – just the words (mental focusing devices) can flip the switch on stress/anxiety reduction. Nice, Patricia. Really appreciate your emphasis on minis, by the way.

      Hey! Thanks much – and please continue to visit and participate…


      • Patricia Miller February 14, 2015, 10:26 pm

        You are super kind, and I always appreciate the work you do putting such solid information out here. I can tell you that stress/anxiety and responding more effectively to stress has been a “hot topic” for me. Your pair of articles are great resources for me and tie some pieces together. One of the things that has proven the most difficult for me is to REALIZE I am in stress mode so I can de-stress and begin to defuse. All too often I continue to proceed in my inner chaos; perhaps with time and practice this will improve.

      • Chipur February 15, 2015, 1:10 pm

        Confident you know this, Patricia, but for the benefit of readers – that thing that has proven the most difficult for you is, I believe, even more important than what we do in response. I mean, how would we know to flip the switch on the RR if we don’t know we’re in “stress mode?” Sure, ongoing practice and emphasis upon the RR would be a major plus – as though we’re 24/7 cool, calm, and collected in response to anything. However, we all know that’s a pretty tough status to maintain.

        So we have to discipline ourselves to be aware of the dashboard warning lights, as though we’re driving a vehicle. We know when one pops on – or, say, we hear a funny noise – we have to slow down, interrupt our routine, and somehow intervene. And so it goes with our levels of stress, anxiety, and varying mood. Here – most of us dealing with a mood/anxiety disorder are much more sensitive to internal goings-on than the average Joan/Joe out there. So let’s use that heightened sense of internal awareness in a positive way, as we allow it to lead us to moments of necessary – deliberate and calm – intervention.

        Thanks so much for your working this out with us here. Not only may it be helpful to you, but to others, as well…


      • npeden July 16, 2015, 9:43 pm

        i like how you acknowledge that we, with these problems, may have something to offer the world. that is an IDEA that i wish i could FEEL. i dont feel i have anything to offer. feeling very sad.

      • Chipur July 17, 2015, 6:55 pm

        I understand that’s how you feel, Nancy – as though you have nothing to offer. However, I know you’re wise enough to realize that’s an issue of thought, not objective fact. Your knowledge of genetics (MTHFR) and anxiety/mood treating supplements is astounding. ‘Course, you acquired your knowledge, well, because you had to. I know you don’t want to use psychotropics. Thing is, you share your insight and knowledge with us, and that’s quite an offering.

        So maybe you can go ahead and accept (acceptance doesn’t mean acquiescence) feeling as though you have nothing to offer as your default, your natural first leaning – but you can move-on to confront it and continue living your life, and bring others as much as you do. Perhaps if you cease wishing (pressing?), and let things roll, you’ll decrease inner tension/conflict enough that some positive self-insights will emerge.

        Always thankful for your contributions…

      • npeden July 18, 2015, 11:32 am

        thanks. yes, i push too much and negativity is my default attitude. a friend will visit tomorrow and he has a lovely list of who we are when in our authenticity. i think i will ask him to bring it…

    • npeden July 16, 2015, 9:37 pm

      patricia, thanks for these tips. i have trouble doing belly breathing in bed but i think/feel most of what you said is great. ok, i will try deep sleep as my mantra.

      my father was a constant woorrier; my issue is genetic.

      i will try binaural beats soon…and pray for help. the terror is worse at night.

      • BCat July 19, 2015, 3:25 pm

        When we’re down, our mental energy is so low and it’s hard to recognize or remember how we felt during the good times, vibes too low to entrain with higher ones. Good words, maybe, but when you’re down, you just have to either wait it out or find ways to pull yourself up.

        You know in your heart and soul you have so much to offer, but it’s so hard to feel that good feeling cause it’s at a higher vibration than your antenna can pick up. You’ve helped me immensely. Don’t know how I would have found or navigated through all that DNA info and reports without your help, which was so generous. Yeah, yeah, fine, you know all that, but when you’re down it’s just hard to generate any good visceral feelings and that bad icky feeling colors everything. Boy, do I know that one.

        Sounds like the visit from your friend should help spark the spiral in the upward direction. Let me tell you about a practice that has helped me so many times — doorknob therapy.

        Once when I was down so low I couldn’t see up I knew I needed just one limb or branch to pull me up a little higher from the pit I was in, and my glance rested on the doorknob of my bedroom door. I started thinking about how great a doorknob was, how shiny, it’s wonderful mechanisms, the engineering behind it, it’s lockable protection, and then the door, how we didn’t have to roll back rocks anymore or suffer through storms blowing through the place, and then the light-switch which was so easy to use and prevents a lot of fires from candles.

        I suddenly started crying with gratefulness for all these little things I never notice or thank but who do so much. Vacuum cleaners – whoa, that was a big one when I started thinking of dragging carpets outside to beat them. Faucets with clean water flowing, showers, chairs, my bed, how they support us so we don’t have to try to rest on hard rocks and bumpy ground. These little servants do so much and I never stopped to notice. I went back and did the process again, only slower, and felt my heart slowly open.

        It started so small, it had to, but allowed me to focus on something neutral and safe and normal everyday stuff, and was the branch that was enough to start the upward spiral and allow me to very slowly climb out. I still do that doorknob therapy and find it so valuable.

        I’ve used some of the binaural beats and found some to be very soothing and some too activating. Just had to keep YouTubing new ones to find ones that let me fall asleep. I think they can help reorganize scattered brainwaves. Beforehand, I tell my brain to tell my body to start working together so we can all enjoy good health. Good luck with your friend and let us know how it went, any insights you gained you’d like to pass on. We on this path are in shaman training, you know.

      • Chipur July 19, 2015, 7:01 pm

        Sweet, kind, and helpful, BCat. I’m so pleased to have your comment here. Sure, for Nancy – but for anyone who may happen-by. Ty…


      • npeden July 19, 2015, 7:06 pm

        Wow, you did SO good in this meditation, BCat! Really noticing with awareness and wham the shift occurred. Very beautiful.

  • npeden July 16, 2015, 1:11 pm

    I still can’t do this after years of practice especially at bed when terror really races around in my head. Am now listening to binaural beats during the day. My geneticist says it can rewire my brain. There are tons of hours of them on you tube. Here is the wikipedia link on them: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binaural_beats. Sure would like a big switch at bed time….

    • Chipur July 16, 2015, 9:13 pm

      Thanks for the tip, Nancy. You share so much with us, and I’m grateful…

    • BCat July 19, 2015, 5:05 pm

      Nancy, I’d like to hear of some suggestions of good ones and maybe links if you have them. One I found was for Depression and Anxiety with sounds of running water and gentle music and slow beats instead of some of the higher pitched beats which aggravate me.

      One thing I found with the doorknob thing was, as I opened up to feeling grateful for them, I started sensing kindness flowing out of some of the inanimate objects, a sweet, kind, simple sentience. Understanding they just want to serve with the best of intentions and provide safety and comfort – that was just their job that they wanted to do it well. I started feeling protection and kindness flowing from my bed and the walls of my room. The ceiling let me know it was glad to cover and protect me and provide support for the house. Their simple kindness and normality eventually allowed me to start feeling safe and fall asleep again.

      It’s mornings that are hard for me. This all has reminded me that I should start doing this practice as soon as I wake up and open up to the kindness of the couch I crash on as I try to start the day, so thanks for the opportunity to remind myself. As it is, I’ve never been able to look at a doorknob again without feeling a little wink and a smile between us.

      • Chipur July 19, 2015, 7:04 pm

        Give ’em hell, BCat…

  • npeden July 20, 2015, 12:23 pm

    bcat, here is the wikipedia definition of binaural beat https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binaural_beats

    they have more on it in wikipedia and my genetisist wants me to read book about it.

    there are many binaural beats on you tube. some of them run all night but that drives me nuts. i am really just exploring this. i find i prefer ones with sweet music; some have just a kind of white noise or tappings. i prefer 1-2 hours just before sleep. let me know if you try it. just search binaural beats on youtube.