Stress Reduction Techniques: How to Begin to Ameliorate Disease and Disorder

Meditation is a very effective technique for relieving psychosocial stress and has significant scientific support. Herbert Benson, M.D., at Harvard Medical School, has been promoting meditation for stress reduction since the mid-1970s. Here are some essential components of Dr. Benson’s relaxation technique:

(1) A quiet environment.

(2) A comfortable position: You should start by closing your eyes and relaxing your muscles progressing from the feet to the head. You should breathe slowly and naturally and use one of the mental devices below as you exhale.

(3) A mental device: A sound, word, phrase or prayer repeatedly silently or aloud or with a fixed gaze on an object.

(4) A passive attitude: Please do not worry about how well you are performing the technique and put aside distracting thoughts.

Practice the technique once or twice daily before breakfast and before dinner for 10–15 minutes. You may also elicit the relaxation response while exercising, too.

Remember, there are two basic kinds of meditation. Either of these two are equally effective.

The path of concentration (e.g., yoga, transcendental meditation, Sufism). The mind focuses on a specific external object. For example, a mantra, a prayer, a picture, a candle flame, a spot in the lower abdomen, a bodily sensation, or a mandala.

The path of mindfulness (e.g., Krishamurti, Gurdjieff). The mind observes itself. For example, focus your mind on internal sensations, mental states, workings of the mind, breathing, position of the limbs, bodily states, or mood.

Physical Exercise

Vigorous physical activity has many important health benefits, both mental and physical. Proper training (conditioning and technique), equipment, clothing, and footwear can reduce sports injuries. Consider joining a health club or purchasing weights and equipment for home use. A fitness instructor may be a good idea, initially, too.

Here are some of the putative benefits of physical exercise:

(1) Increases the number and size of blood vessels in heart and muscles

(2) Increases elasticity of blood vessels

(3) Increases efficiency of exercising muscles

(4) Increases efficiency of the heart

(5) Increases tolerance to both physical and psychosocial stress

(6) Decreases cholesterol and triglycerides

(7) Lowers blood pressure reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke

(8) Improves alertness, attention, and motivation

(9) Encourages neurons to bind together and thus facilitates information storage

(10) Facilitates the development of new neurons in the brain arising from stem cells in the hippocampus

(11) Improves cognitive flexibility and executive function (also known as “multitasking”)

(12) Provides distraction from everyday problems and reduces muscular tension

(13) Builds brain resources (serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA — inhibits fear and anxiety — and BDNF or brain-derived neurotrophic factor builds and maintains cell circuitry).

(14) Teaches your mind/brain a different outcome for activation of the sympathetic nervous system or SNS thus re-routing brain circuits (the SNS is behind anxiety, depression, panic, and phobia). That is to say, we learn that certain physical signs (e.g., sweaty palms, heart palpitations or heavy breathing) aren’t inexorably tied to attacks of anxiety.

(15) Increases self-mastery and resilience

(16) Increases “active coping” or actually doing something in response to whatever danger or problem is causing your anxiety

Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga as well as other forms of yoga are also effective for stress-reduction. Hatha yoga involves physical postures or “asanas” that are intended to promote physical well-being; improve flexibility, strength, and stamina; as well as encourage mental relaxation. Hook-up with a yoga instructor in your neighborhood or purchase a yoga DVD.

Therapeutic Massage

Therapeutic massage involves the manipulation of soft tissues of the body including skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. It reduces pain and psychosocial stress and may induce the relaxation response as well as reduce anxiety and depression. It aids sleep and may have cardiovascular benefits as well. It has recently received scientific and medical support, too. Find a practitioner in your area.

Some Suggesting Reading

Benson, H. (1975). The relaxation response. NY: HarperCollins.

Ratey, J. J. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. NY: Little, Brown, & Co.