The Relaxation Response

As we all know, high blood pressure is a problem for many seniors. Along with our age, high blood pressure creeps up as well. A younger senior might be diagnosed as “pre-hypertensive” and because it’s easier for doctors to simply prescribe an anti-hypertensive medication rather than to encourage lifestyle changes, they find themselves on a pill or two. It is possible, however, that the drug could do more harm than good and could cause unnecessary anxiety. Herbert Benson, MD, author of bestseller, The Relaxation Response, offers an alternative.

Benson believes that by practicing the Relaxation Response, you will be better able to cope with difficult situations by allowing your body to achieve a more balanced state through the physiologic effects of the Relaxation Response. However, stopping the practice will stop the benefits within several days. There are no side effects when practiced once or twice daily for 10 to 20 minutes.

On page 35 of his book, he gives a case study of a woman with moderate hypertension with a family history of high blood pressure. After 14 months of practice she says:

The Relaxation Response has contributed to many changes in my life. Not only has it made me more relaxed physically and mentally, but also it has contributed to changes in my personality and way of life. I seem to have become calmer, more open and receptive especially to ideas which either have been unknown to me or very different from my past way of life. I like the way I am becoming; more patient, overcoming some fears especially around my physical health and stamina. I feel stronger physically and mentally. I take better care of myself. I am more committed to my daily exercise and see it as an integral part of my life. I really enjoy it, too! I drink less alcohol, take less medicine. The positive feedback which I experience as a result of the Relaxation Response and the lowered blood pressure readings make me feel I am attempting to transcend a family history replete with hypertensive heart disease.

There are two essential ingredients to the Relaxation Response:

  1. Repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity.
  2. Passively disregarding everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and returning to your repetition.

Here are the simple steps to elicit the Relaxation Response:

  1. Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system.
  2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck.
  5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
  6. 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.
  7. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.
  8. Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
  9. Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner.

According to Benson, you can even elicit the Relaxation Response while exercising. If you are jogging or walking, pay attention to the cadence of your feet on the ground — left, right, left, right, left right — and if other thoughts come into your mind say — oh well — and return to — left, right, left, right. He reminds you to keep your eyes open! Swimmers can pay attention to the tempo of their strokes, cyclists to the whir of the wheels, and dancers to the beat of the music. So find a creative way to incorporate the Relaxation Response into your life.

Chronic Pain Relief

According to WebMD, chronic back pain can shrink the brain and age you by as much as 20 times faster than normal. It shrinks the part of the brain responsible for memory and information processing.

Many seniors live with chronic pain day in and day out. According to Caroline Burnett, CMTPT, of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapy, Inc. in Springfield, VA, a specialist in relieving pan and restoring function through muscle retraining, she says that 85% of chronic pain comes from the muscles. There is no medical reason for the pain.

My first reaction to “myofascial” was that it had something to do with the face. But I learned that “myo” means muscle and “fascial” is the connective tissue. Hence, she works to lengthen the muscle to release the triggers points. She is like a detective to find out what you’re doing to keep yourself in pain. It’s something that you keep doing over and over for many years, so cooperatively with you and the therapist, she tries to fix what you’ve been doing the wrong way. Muscles have memory … you’ve been working for many years to tighten your muscles.

Her goal is education because 75% of the work involves lifestyle changes. She shows you how you can help yourself. Changes involve postural as well as mental and physical changes. Once treatment starts to lengthen the muscles and release the trigger points, your muscles will learn the new habit and your pain will disappear. However, you must do your homework.

Caroline Burnett

Caroline Burnett

The doctor who developed this therapy was Janet Travell, MD. She was appointed as the personal physician to President John F. Kennedy. For more information and to contact Caroline Burnett, click here.

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