Herbert Benson, MD, a brilliant Harvard Medical School professor, has been studying the science of meditation for decades. His pioneering book, Relaxation Revolution (Scribner, 2011), is packed with scientific research studies, practical tips, and guided meditations and visualizations on how to deal with a range of specific life challenges.
I’m excited to share a few of my favorite Big Ideas from this mind-blowing book. So let’s dive in!
A Solution to Stress
The relaxation response, writes Benson, is the opposite of the fight-or-flight stress response. “It is characterized by the following: decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing; a decrease or ‘calming’ in brain activity; an increase in attention and decision-making functions of the brain; and changes in gene activity that are the opposite of those associated with stress.”
Our bodies are brilliantly designed in such a way that, when faced with a life-threatening danger (or a perceived life-threatening danger), our hearts pump blood to our legs so we can make a quick exit, and adrenaline floods our system so we’re as strong as possible for a potential fight. Unfortunately, our bodies’ evolution hasn’t quite kept up with our minds’ evolution, and now a sideways glance from our boss or someone cutting us off in traffic often elicits the same response. All. Day. Long.
But researchers have discovered that we possess the ability to induce the relaxation response in a relatively short period of time. And there’s more good news: The benefits of doing so are huge.
The Power to Change Your Genes
Benson and his team of researchers wanted to see if mind-body practices influence our genetics. They studied 19 seasoned mind-body practitioners and 19 people without any experience in mind-body practices. The participants were married and unmarried men and women in their mid-30s to early 40s. Their findings were significant: 2,209 genes were expressed differently — and more healthfully — in the mind-body practitioners.
The researchers didn’t stop there. “We continued our investigation by posing these questions: ‘What would happen if the participants . . . with no experience with the relaxation response were instructed in appropriate mind-body techniques and then applied them in their daily lives for a few weeks? In that short time period, would they show any of the same positive, anti-stress gene-expression changes that the highly experienced mind-body practitioners had shown?’”
The answer is yes. After eight weeks of doing mind-body practices, the second group exhibited healthful changes in genetic expression on 1,561 genes.
“The probability of this being due to chance was less than five in 100,” writes Benson. “Even more striking, when we compared [the nonpracticing] group after their training with the experienced mind-body group [with an average of 9.4 years of mind-body practice], we found that 433 gene-expression signatures were similar in both groups.” Just eight weeks of training had induced a genetic relaxation response similar to the one in long-time practitioners.
“The significance of these results came home to us dramatically when we considered how likely (or unlikely) it would be for these changes to have happened by chance in both parts of the experiment. We determined that the probability of the same gene signatures being involved accidentally in both groups in both experiments was less than one in 10 billion,” he adds.
Wow! It’s incredibly inspiring that we can significantly alter our genes by engaging in simple mind-body practices for as little as eight weeks.
Triggering the Mind-Body Response
One of the key findings Benson emphasizes throughout the book is this: It doesn’t really matter what techniques you employ to relax; what matters is that those techniques successfully induce the mind-body response for you.
“The participants in the genetics study used a number of different meditative, relaxation, and prayer-based techniques. These included repeating a mantra, mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, Vipassana meditation, breath focus, Kripalu or Kundalini yoga, and repetitive prayer. Despite the variety, all techniques yielded the same gene expression,” he says.
Whatever technique you choose, Benson offers these tips for success:
Brush Your Brain. When someone experiences performance anxiety about how well they’re inducing the relaxation response, Benson tells them: “Don’t worry about how well you’re doing! Don’t worry about whether the relaxation response is really working. . . . Just do it!”
He likens it to brushing your teeth. “Most of us are concerned to one extent or another with dental hygiene,” he explains, “but we don’t dwell on the tooth-cleaning process. Almost no one evaluates the brushing to say, ‘That was a good brush!’ or, ‘Too bad — that was a bad brush.’ We simply do it.”
Now imagine taking the same approach with our meditation. It’s not about doing it perfectly; it’s about doing it consistently.
And, of course, the same rule holds for any activity in our lives where we may hold back for fear of not doing it perfectly — whether that’s writing or performing or teaching, or whatever. The fact is, the greatest risk is simply not showing up.
Just say, “Oh, well.” During the genetics study, participants would pose questions to the researchers. The most common question was some variation on this: “I keep having these outside thoughts that interfere with my concentration — what can I do to avoid them?” Their stock answer? “Just say, ‘Oh well,’ and return to the exercise.”
A Powerful Key to Health
According to Benson, “Any condition that is caused or exacerbated by stress can be helped by a well-designed mind-body approach. Further-more, because all health conditions have some stress component, it is no overstatement to say that virtually every single health problem and disease can be improved with a mind-body approach.”
Plato once said: “The greatest mistake physicians make is that they attempt to cure the body without attempting to cure the mind; yet the mind and the body are one and should not be treated separately!”
Now, 2,500 years later, science has finally proven Plato right!
About the Author
Herbert Benson, MD, is the Mind-Body Medical Institute Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is the author of the best-selling book Relaxation Revolution, as well as 11 other books. His groundbreaking work established the modern field of mind-body medicine. Benson is the Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.