One of the most powerful tools a psychologist can use is actually nothing new, said Herbert Benson, MD, at APA's Annual Convention. In fact, it's an approach that's been around for millennia, yet its full potential remains untapped.
Benson was referring to the relaxation response, a physical state of deep rest that changes a person's physical and emotional responses to stress.
Benson, of Harvard Medical School and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered the relaxation response's power to reduce stress in the 1960s. But his subsequent research found that the approach is really no different from what people have done for centuries through prayer, chanting and repetitive motion.
Today, scientists have shown that such practices lower heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption, and they alleviate the symptoms associated with a vast array of conditions, including hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, infertility, cancer, anxiety, even aging.
"You as psychologists can use the mind like you would use a drug," he said. "This should empower you in your practices."
His latest research, published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE (July 2), suggests that practicing the relaxation response can actually lead to genomic activity changes. In the study, his team of researchers looked at how the relaxation response affected each of the body's 40,000 genes and found that, compared with a control group, those who regularly used the relaxation response induced anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory changes that counteracted the effects of stress on the body.
Eliciting the relaxation response is simple, he explained: Once or twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes, sit in a relaxed position, eyes closed, and repeat a word or sound as you breathe. Some people use such words as "love" or "peace." Others say traditional prayers. If your thoughts stray -- which is normal and expected -- just refocus on the word repetition.
There are scores of other ways to summon the relaxation response, as well, said Benson. "Anything that breaks the train of everyday thought will evoke this physiological state."
That includes participating in repetitive sports such as running, letting go of tension through progressive muscular relaxation, practicing yoga, knitting, crocheting, even playing musical instruments.
"You know how when you play an instrument and you become 'one' with that instrument and the time flits away? That is the relaxation response," he said. "You know the high you get from running? That is the relaxation response coming about by the repetitive motion of your footfall."
Research into practice
Benson recommended that psychology practitioners learn a variety of techniques so they can introduce their clients to the practice they'll be comfortable with. Catholics might want to try the "Hail Mary" prayer. Athletes can use repetitive sports.
Keep your mind open about the practice that will work for your clients, he said. "The damning thing about these techniques is that when you use them regularly, you come to believe that the one that was successful for you will be successful for everyone." Let your client find the technique that she or he believes in and encourage daily practice. "You can't simply save this for when they are under stress," he said.
With regular practice, clients develop quieter minds. So it's particularly beneficial when a client elicits the relaxation response before a therapy session.
"With less static, less noise, traditional cognitive restructuring enters," said Benson. "People listen better. It's a more fertile environment, so you can do what you are so well trained to do -- the cognitive work, the positive ideation. It's a door opening to allow you to help change people's lives."
Given that 60 percent to 90 percent of health-care professional visits are stress-related, the potential of the relaxation response to help people is enormous, he said. "I believe this is going to change medicine."
Benson's invited address was sponsored by Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology) and Div. 38 (Health).