The Relaxation Response: A Book Review

francescamarangell's picture

Dr. Robert Benson discusses the powerful health advantages of the relaxation response in his book titled, The Relaxation Response. Through mental training techniques Dr. Benson demonstrates how to elicit the relaxation response and how to absorb the de-stressing effects it has provided for millions of individuals. Dr. Benson believes that Medicine is a tripod, balanced by three healing resources: medications, medical procedures such as surgery and self care. Regular practice of the relaxation response is believed to significantly strengthen the third leg of the tripod. After reading Dr. Benson’s book, I was both intrigued and enlightened by several of his ideas, theories and arguments. However, I was also hesitant and critical of certain claims that were presented.

The Relaxation Response has the physiologically opposite effect than the instinctual fight or flight response. Dr. Benson believes that a large percentage of Americans live stressful lives. This I wholly agree with. From morning traffic, to long, hard, competitive days at work or school, balancing family and chores, financial issues and relationship difficulties, we are immersed in a stressful society. Stress related diseases such as heart attacks, hypertension and strokes have markedly increased in both its frequency and the age range of who it affects. (p.51) The stresses that build upon each other resulting in these fatal diseases stem in part from our innate fight or flight responses.

The fight or flight response evolved from our ancient ancestors, and is believed to exist in numerous mammals. The mechanism is essential for survival in the wild. In a stressful situation for an animal (say a fox is approaching a rabbit) specific hormones are released in the rabbit, triggering responses in the mammalian body to help it react to the situation. These responses include increased heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, metabolic rate, and blood flow to the muscles, triggered by the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, epinephrine and norepinephrine. (p.9) These responses allow the rabbit to jump up and run as fast as it can in order to survive the fox’s catch.

In contemporary society we no longer need these physiologic responses in order to survive and yet they persist. In fact our bodies would benefit more from the calming effects of relaxation response than the taxing effects of the fight or flight response. For this reason Dr. Herbert Benson designed a simple step by step method that elicits the relaxation response. Its fundamental criteria involve a quiet space, a comfortable position, a mental device repeated aloud or internally, and a passive attitude that dismisses incoming thoughts and distractions. (p.10)

As I was reading, I found myself challenging some of the issues, studies and observations of science that Dr. Herbert Benson discusses in support of his relaxation response. For instance whenever Dr. Benson describes a study that was performed, the entire study is not described. I am left with questions about the study and their conclusions which detract from the point he is trying to make. One example of a study involved measuring the effects of meditation on the metabolism. A group of individuals with a range of meditation history were hooked up to wires that recorded oxygen consumption and then asked to meditate. A decrease in oxygen consumption directly correlated with a decrease in metabolism rate. The results found that the participants significantly lowered their oxygen consumption during meditation, more so than through sleep. (p.110) Did all participants show the same effect? How did avid transcendental meditators compare to novices? I have a difficult time understanding how a man who has never meditated before showed the same physiologic changes as an individual who had practiced for 30 years, when the principles of meditation say that practice strengthens physiologic alterations. With more information, these questions may be answered.

It is extremely difficult to deny that physiologic changes are occurring. Increasing alpha wave activity, decreases in the rate of metabolism, oxygen consumption and blood lactate production are all measured, observed side effects of the relaxation response. I can confidently say that the physiology of the human brain and human body changes as the relaxation response persists, but I am not one-hundred percent certain that it is the relaxation response that is responsible for these changes. It is merely a reasonable and probable assumption. It is a story which explains the observed physiologic alterations. As neurobiology has taught me, it is impossible to prove something right, only that which is “less wrong” can be determined. As of now, the “less wrong” story tells us that the relaxation response is responsible for these side effects.

Throughout the book, Dr. Benson never mentions the negative aspects of meditation and the relaxation response. He describes how some people find it “silly”, and that the practice is not necessarily accepted as normal in western societies, but never does he mention the negative science. Some specialists believe that the ignorant and improper use of meditation and other relaxation response techniques can actually cause harm to the body. The effects that are produced are the opposite desired effects, leaving ones health in a depreciated position. Is Dr. Benson aware of this? Did he not address it because he does not believe this theory? Or is it more convenient for his argument to omit that side of the discussion?

I question some of the events that Dr. Benson witnessed. He described a scene in Tibet, high in the Himalayan Mountains where a nude monk stood outside in sub zero degree weather. He draped himself in wet sheets and using the power of mental training, he was able to raise his body temperature. Radiating steam dried the wet sheets that were cast across his body. This is what Dr. Benson believes that he saw and I do not question whether he truly believes this or not. I question the act itself. Is that really what happened on that mountain in Tibet? Can it be measured and reproduced scientifically? At other points in the book Dr. Benson addresses the validity of certain claims. Tibetan monks reportedly stopped their own heart beat or confined themselves in a steel metal box and continued to survive by slowing their oxygen intake to extreme rates. (p. 105) Dr. Benson says that these claims seem to be made based on the misinterpretations of data. How can we be sure that Dr. Benson didn’t misinterpret his data from the monk and the wet sheet example? To me, the reader, it seems like just another misinterpreted claim.

I was also surprised at one point in the book, when Dr. Benson admitted that he himself did not use the relaxation response until later in life when his aches and pains finally surfaced due to old age. It seems hypocritical to teach a method of self help, praising its astonishment, but not engage in the practice. It made me question the method itself.

Despite the criticism that I placed on Dr. Benson’s arguments, after reading the book I was very excited about the prospect of the relaxation response. I was excited not necessarily because I wanted to illicit the response, but because it opened up new ideas about the mind-body relationship. The limits of mind-body control seem limitless. Despite the criticism that I placed on Dr. Benson’s arguments, I think he relayed his information about the relaxation response in a very personable manner that a range of readers could relate to. More science may isolate those not familiar with scientific methods and language, but ignoring science altogether would depreciate the value of his arguments. I closed my red paperback copy of the Relaxation Response on a hopeful note that the more neurological studies the world conducts, the more books that are read and the more discussions that are held, the story behind the mind body relationship will become more and more “less wrong”.


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