14 Oct Utilizing the mind-body connection to our advantage
When we think of our favorite dish, steaming and fresh off the stove, the simple thought can provoke a physical reaction; we salivate almost as if the plate were right in front of us. In the same way, streams of worried thoughts can quickly bring our heart to pound, racing, all though we are simply sitting still. These are prime examples of the connection between mind and body and, with guidance, we can learn how to exploit this connection to our own advantage.
Dr. Herbert Benson has been studying the mind-body connection for decades and has been a pioneer in the integration of eastern and western medicine ideologies. This path has led him to write multiple books surrounding the plethora of research studies he has conducted over the length of his career, many of them measuring the beneficial effects of using eastern methods of meditation as a tool towards wellness.
He coined the term “the relaxation response” which he uses to describe our ability to counteract the body’s natural stress response, also known as the “fight or flight” response which is mediated by hormones working in many different locations of our body. While the fight or flight response can be beneficial in times of acute stress, it works against us as we experience chronic or frequent stressors. This continuous hormonal release can cause damage to our health by elevating our blood pressure, increasing risk of cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disease and more.
Our nervous system is divided into two major branches, the central nervous system, made up of our brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, made up of just about everything else. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is subdivided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. At a very basic level, they can be thought of as near opposites with the sympathetic NS taking charge of the “fight or flight” response and the parasympathetic NS mediating the so-called “relaxation response”. According to Dr. Benson, consciously summoning this relaxation response with frequency can counteract the stress response, lowering our blood pressure, heart rate and helping us achieve overall improved health. On top of these major physiological advantages, it also acts to help us approximate ourselves to inner peace.
Here is the “generic technique” straight out of Dr. Benson’s book “The Relaxation Response”, updated in 2010 (originally written in 1975):
- Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system.
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head and neck.
- Breathe slowly and naturally, as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
- Assume a passive attitude. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh well,” and gently return to your repetition.
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit another minute before rising.
- Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner.