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BOOK REVIEW: The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson

The Relaxation ResponseThe Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I read the 25th anniversary edition of this seminal work on stress reduction, which was released in 2009. Obviously, that makes this an oldie, but it’s clearly a goodie as well. The new addition has a substantial introduction, providing updated information.

The body’s “fight or flight” response to stressful conditions has long been recognized and it’s virtually a household term. However, despite the equally alliterative name and the fact that Dr. Benson’s original book came out well over 30 years ago, the relaxation response remains a lesser known phenomena. Decades ago, Herbert Benson, a Harvard physician, recognized that patients’ coping ability influenced their health outcomes–specifically with respect to hypertension (a.k.a. high blood pressure.) This led him to investigate how a state of reduced stress could be achieved, and whether this could have a positive impact on health outcomes.

Benson and his co-investigators found that Transcendental Meditation (TM) could trigger the relaxation response, and from that they further uncovered specific aspects of TM that were generalizable in achieving this state (i.e. an object of concentration and a passive / non-judgmental attitude.) From this it followed that activities such as yoga, chi gong, walking, and some types of exercise could achieve the same physiological state as meditation. There was scholarly pressure to establish that the relaxation response was more than a placebo effect. In proving that the relaxation response didn’t hinge on a patient’s beliefs and that it had a predictable effect (and hence it was inconsistent with the placebo effect) Benson also realized that maybe doctors shouldn’t be so dismissive of the placebo effect—people were getting better, after all, and there was some mechanism by which that wellness was achieved that would be worth understanding.

In the first chapter, Benson describes an epidemic of hypertension, the fight or flight response, and its opposite number: the relaxation response. The next chapter delves into the specifics of hypertension and related topics like cholesterol consumption. Chapter 3 makes a connection between stress and the proclivity to develop hypertension. The following chapter lays out various approaches to achieving a more relaxed physiological state, including: biofeedback, yoga, zen, progressive relaxation, and hypnosis. Chapter 5 is about altered states of consciousness, and, specifically, the meditative state. Various age-old methods of achieving a meditative mind are examined. That’s followed by a chapter which lays out the results of relaxation response training in reducing hypertension and drug use. Chapter 7 is an explanation of how to achieve the desired state that generalizes beyond the specific approach of TM. The last chapter is a brief summary.

I found this book to be both interesting and informative. It’s useful both as a practical guide to practice and an explanation of related information.

I’d recommend “The Relaxation Response” for anyone who is interested in learned to de-stress. It’s a classic, and the new edition offers substantial updates.

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1 Comment

  1. […] and Karen Armstrong.) There are also a number of books reporting the science of meditation (e.g. Herbert Benson and Sat Bir Singh Khalsa.) However, it’s not so common for the subjects to be […]

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