State Leadership Conference

Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and prayer, can improve people's health, and psychologists are in a unique position to promote such self-care techniques as a major part of preventative health care, said Herbert Benson, MD, the founding president of the Harvard Medical School Mind/Body Medical Institute, during the 2005 State Leadership Conference's opening session.

Stress hormones, produced when the body's "fight or flight" response is triggered, play a role in a host of ailments including hypertension, anxiety, depression, infertility, hot flashes in menopause and insomnia, Benson said. Those hormones--adrenaline and noradrenaline specifically--are created to allow for a quick reaction to stressful events. However, said Benson, with little reason for fight or flight under most modern stressful circumstances, such as paying the bills or facing a cancer diagnosis, they go unused and collect in the body.

Relaxation techniques can help undo the damage done by stress hormones, Benson said, and should be considered an essential element of health care. In fact, he said, self-care techniques, along with drugs and pharmaceuticals and surgery and procedures, form the "three-legged stool" of an ideal health-care model.

"We must keep in mind the absolute need for the surgical and the pharmaceutical," he said. "But with 60 percent of doctor visits stress-related, we have to take behavioral health very seriously."

At the Mind/Body Medical Institute, Benson and his colleagues studied what techniques bring about a healthy relaxation response and found that meditation, prayer and other such techniques that involve repetition of a word or concept, along with the dismissal of other thoughts, will bring about healthy chemical changes, such as liberation of nitric oxide in the blood.

"Relaxation methods are successful throughout culture and time because they are so simple," Benson said. "I believe that using this relaxation model as a treatment could create a really well-balanced three-legged stool, and psychology is in a place that is very unique in being suited to that new health-care model."