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!