Our stress and relaxation responses: What you need to know | 2

by | Aug 8, 2023

stress and relaxation responses

Your stress response behaves badly and you’ve come to understand why. Great first step, but now it’s time to pull in the reins. And to do it you need to learn about your relaxation response. Let’s get busy…

Is it any wonder the RR is an effective intervention for all sorts of health concerns – anxiety disorders, hypertension, chronic pain…

We began a two-part series last week on our stress and relaxation responses.

Part one handled our stress response (fight/flight) and we’ll wrap things up by digging into our relaxation response.

As I said last week, most everything you’re about to read comes from a great book written by Gregg D. Jacobs, PhD, Say Good Night to Insomnia.

Here we go…

The discovery of the relaxation response

Prior to the 1960s, voluntary control over the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – in charge of our respiration rate, heart rate, digestion, etc. – was thought impossible.

But later that same decade some significant discoveries in the world of biofeedback challenged that notion. And scientists soon discovered control over the ANS could be achieved.

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

Dr. Herbert Benson

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.

What is the relaxation response?

Benson proposed that the relaxation response (RR) is our body’s inborn counter-balancing mechanism to the stress response and can be used to offset its damaging effects.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that the RR occurs automatically when it comes to physical stressors; however, such is not the case with psychological stressors.

That means we have to learn to consciously initiate the RR to counter the effects of excessive stress responses.

Is it any wonder that the RR is an effective intervention 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?

How to turn on the relaxation response

Dr. Benson could have left his work in the discovery process and it would have been “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, according to Benson and Jacobs, here’s what it takes to turn on the RR…

  1. Relax the muscles throughout your body: Lying down or sitting comfortably, close your eyes and feel relaxation gradually spreading. What you’re looking for are feelings such as warmth, heaviness, tingling, floating – or nothing.
  2. Establish a relaxed and abdominal breathing pattern.
  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.

Have you ever done it? Do you hurt badly enough to give it a try?

Don’t force it and practice

how to turn on your relaxation response

“Okay, abdominal breaths and stay focused in the moment. Nice and easy, kid.”

It’s important to allow the RR to work at its own pace.

Don’t force it or get upset if things aren’t going as you’d like. And if distractions present, do your best to ignore them and return to your mental focusing device.

Understand that quieting your mind isn’t easy at first. With practice, however, your skills will improve.

Jacobs recommends practicing daily for 10-20 minutes. Of 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 right and exercising.

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


How ’bout what Jacobs calls “minis?” He submits they’re a way to call upon our RR when time is at a premium or we can’t close our eyes (in a traffic jam, waiting in line, in a meeting, etc.).

A mini is an abbreviated RR session. 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 three advantages: they can be used most anytime and anywhere to cope with stressful situations, they can be used more frequently than a full RR session, and they may end up being more effective than tapping into the RR just once daily.

No knowledge, no relief

So there you have the goods on the relaxation response. Huge to know and activate when our stress response behaves badly, as well as for overall health maintenance.

No knowledge, no relief. Right? I hope you find the series helpful..

If you haven’t already, give part one a go. Great info on the stress response.

Here’s the scoop on Say Good Night to Insomnia.

And check out Dr. Jacobs’ CBT-I (CBT for insomnia) website.

Oh, one final detail. Alisa at NESTMAVEN asked if I’d link to one of her articles – on insomnia. Here’s Insomnia – Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment.

Feel like reading more Chipur mood and anxiety info and inspiration articles? Check out the titles.

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