Physical Element


The Physical Element

Herbert Benson, MD, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute describes how many studies have shown that regular practice of the relaxation response not only alleviates stress and anxiety but also directly affects physiologic factors such as blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen consumption.  

When people have practiced relaxation of the physical body over a period of time, the following description by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is not a theoretical idea, but an accurate account of what people experience as they progress. 

“Even something as simple as relaxation can be frustratingly elusive if you are unaware of your body.  The stress of daily living often produces tension that tends to localize in particular muscle groups, such as the shoulders, the jaw and the forehead.  In order to release this tension, you first have to know it is there.  You have to feel it.  Then you have to know how to shut off the automatic pilot and how to take over the controls of your own body and mind.  As we will see further on, this involves zeroing in on your body with a focused mind, experiencing the sensations coming from within the muscles themselves, and sending them messages to let the tension dissolve and release.  This is something that can be done at the time the tension is accumulating if you are mindful enough to sense it.  There is no need to wait until it has built to the point that your body feels like a two-by-four.  If you let it go that long, the tension will have become so ingrained that you will have probably forgotten what it feels like to be relaxed, and you may have little hope of ever feeling relaxed again.

The Relaxation Response

A study from investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) finds that elicitation of the relaxation response, a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing and prayer, produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.   "Many studies have shown that mind/body interventions like the relaxation response can reduce stress and enhance wellness in healthy individuals and counteract the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions like hypertension, anxiety, diabetes and aging," says Herbert Benson, MD, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute.  He continues, "Now for the first time we've identified the key physiological hubs through which these benefits might be induced."

Blood samples from all participants were analysed to determine the expression of more than 22,000 genes at the different time points.

The results revealed significant changes in the expression of several important groups of genes between the novice samples and those from both the short- and long-term sets, with even more pronounced changes in the long-term practitioners. A systems biology analysis of known interactions among the proteins produced by the affected genes revealed that pathways involved with energy metabolism, particularly the function of mitochondria, were upregulated during the relaxation response. Pathways controlled by activation of a protein called NF-κB, known to have a prominent role in inflammation, stress, trauma and cancer, were suppressed after relaxation response elicitation. The expression of genes involved in insulin pathways was also significantly altered.

The results “add to a growing body of research that is showing the positive benefits of a variety of meditative techniques, including tai chi and yoga,” said Dr. Michael Irwin, a study author and professor of psychiatry at UCLA. “These studies begin to move us beyond simply connecting the mind and genome, and identify simple practices that an individual can harness to improve human health.”

Which of these applies to you?


I have never been aware of the depth of the potential benefits of physically relaxing?


I use practices which elicit a deep relaxation response weekly.


I use practices which elicit a deep relaxation response daily.


I can see the benefit to my health of introducing a deep relaxation response.


I think it would be difficult to introduce regular deep relaxation responses into my schedule.



Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, published by Piatkus, 1990 reprinted 2007.  ISBN:0-7499-1585-4

Herbert Benson (2013).  “Relaxation Response, Learn to counteract the physiological effects of stress”, discussed in the article, Heart and Soul Healing by Marilyn Mitchell, M.D.  Published on March 29, 2013.  ( healing/201303/dr-herbert-benson-s-relaxation-response). 

Creswell JD, Irwin MR, Burklund LJ, et al: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: A small randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior and Immunity, July 20, 2012.

Relaxation Response has a positive impact on gastrointestinal disorders

A pilot study has found that participating in a nine-week training program including stimulation of the relaxation response had a significant impact on clinical symptoms of the gastrointestinal disorders, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), as well as the expression of genes related to inflammation and the body’s response to stress.

The paper from researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.  It is the first to study the use of the relaxation response in these disorders and the first to investigate the genomic effects of the relaxation response in individuals with any disorder.

“Our results suggest exciting possibilities for further developing and implementing this treatment in a wider group of patients with gastrointestinal illness,” says Braden Kuo, MD, of the Gastrointestinal Unit in the MGH Department of Medicine, and co-lead author.   “What is novel about our study is demonstration of the impact of a mind/body intervention on the genes controlling inflammatory factors that are known to play a major role in IBD and possibly in IBS.”

Which of these applies to you?

I have never been aware that the relaxation response can directly affect the health of the gastrointestinal tract.


I would consider using the relaxation response to help promote the health of my gastrointestinal tract.


Knowing this I would encourage people that I know who suffer from gastrointestinal illnesses to use the relaxation response to help alleviate their condition.



Genomic and Clinical Effects Associated with a Relaxation Response Mind-Body Intervention in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease by

Braden Kuo, Manoj Bhasin, Jolene Jacquart, Matthew A. Scult, Lauren Slipp, Eric Isaac Kagan Riklin, Veronique Lepoutre, Nicole Comosa, Beth-Ann Norton, Allison Dassatti, Jessica Rosenblum, Andrea H. Thurler, Brian C. Surjanhata, Nicole N. Hasheminejad, Leslee Kagan, Ellen Slawsby, Sowmya R. Rao, Eric A. Macklin, Gregory L. Fricchione, Herbert Benson, Towia A. Libermann, Joshua Korzenik, and John W. Denninger.  

Published online 2015 Apr 30. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0123861

Meditation and Potential Pain Reduction

A piece of research entitled, Neuroimaging of meditation’s effect on brain reactivity to pain’ led by David W. Orme-Johnson at the Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa and the Departments of Radiological Sciences & Psychiatry and Human Behaviour, University of California at Irvine, USA, describes how some meditation techniques reduce pain, but up until this piece of research there have been no studies on how meditation affects the brain’s response to pain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging of the response to thermally induced pain applied outside the meditation period found that long-term practitioners of the Transcendental Meditation technique showed 40–50% fewer voxels (Voxel-based morphometry is a neuroimaging analysis technique that allows investigation of focal differences in brain anatomy) responding to pain in the thalamus and total brain than in healthy matched controls interested in learning the technique. After the controls learned the technique and practiced it for 5 months, their response decreased by 40–50%

in the thalamus, prefrontal cortex, total brain, and marginally in the anterior cingulate cortex. The

results suggest that the Transcendental Meditation technique longitudinally reduces the affective/

motivational dimension of the brain’s response to pain.

An article published in The Journal of Neuroscience, April 2011, referred to research using a form of mindfulness meditation, called focused attention, (people are taught to concentrate on breathing and let go of distracting thoughts and emotions).  Researchers at the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina led by Dr Fadel Zeidan investigated how the technique appears to calm down pain experiencing areas of the brain while at the same time boosting coping areas.

Dr Zeidan explained how meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is.  The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex.

Dr Zeidan stated, "We found a big effect, about a 40% reduction in pain intensity and a 57% reduction in pain unpleasantness.  Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25%."

He and his colleagues believe that meditation has great potential for clinical use because so little training was required to produce such dramatic pain-relieving effects.  "This study shows that meditation produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain without medications," he said.


P.S. (University admin):

The most important thing I have learned from the meditation classes is to relax at will.  I suffer from constant pain and I find that relaxation/meditation helps me to deal with this, especially if I wake during the night.  I try and find time during the day to practice and apply what I have learned in the classes.  I can now switch off from surrounding noise more easily I feel more in control of my emotions, and I think the classes have given an overall benefit to my well-being.

A.B. (retired Nanny and yachtswomen):

I joined the Activated Qi Meditation classes around 11 years ago. This class expanded my interest in how to really relax and put myself back in charge of my body.  I had for a long time relied on tablets for pain relief for an on-going back problem.  In time, learning from the classes I use qi energy to bring heat (yang qi) to parts of my back so, under medical supervision, lessening the number of painkiller tablets I needed to take. 

Which of these applies to you?


I didn’t realise that the relaxation response could have such an impact upon pain control.


I have been using the relaxation response to help me manage chronic pain.


Knowing this I would encourage people that I know who suffer from chronic pain to use the relaxation response to help alleviate their condition.



Neuroimaging of meditation’s effect on brain reactivity to pain by David W. Orme-Johnsona, Robert H. Schneidera, Young D. Sonb, Sanford Nidicha, and Zang-Hee Cho.  Published in final edited form as: Neuroreport. 2006 August 21; 17(12): 1359–1363

Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa, USA and

Departments of Radiological Sciences & Psychiatry and Human Behaviour, MED SCI I, University of

California at Irvine, Irvine, California, USA

The Relaxation Response and Blood Pressure

Figures obtained from Blood Pressure UK, show that roughly 16 million people in the UK have high blood pressure, on average this means that 30 per cent of women and 32 per cent of men have high blood pressure.  People with high blood pressure are three times more likely to develop heart disease and stroke and twice as likely to die from these as people with a normal blood pressure.  Which results in approximately 62,000 unnecessary deaths from stroke and heart attacks occur due to poor blood pressure control.

Dr. R. Zusman, director of the hypertension program at Massachusetts General Hospital, recommends meditation to his patients.  After conducting a three-month study to see if meditation techniques could help his patients, he reported that the relaxation response assists the body by increasing the formation of a compound called nitric oxide, which causes blood vessels to open up.  In turn, this helps lowers blood pressure. He stated, “The results were striking. It was statistically significant, but more important it was clinically significant to these people."

While, Professor of Physiology, Dr. Uväs-Moberg, author of The Oxytocin Factor states that oxytocin does two important things.  Firstly, it lowers blood pressure and other stress-related responses, and secondly it increases positive social behaviours, such as friendliness and the desire to connect.  She states, “Today, in my opinion, our relaxation responses are under-developed and we are much more stressed than we have been historically.  Therefore, everything that we can do to enhance our levels of oxytocin increases our options for wellbeing.” 


Dr. R. Zusman (March 2008): Adding the relaxation response, a stress-management approach, to other lifestyle interventions may significantly improve treatment of the type of hypertension most common in the elderly.

Dr. Uväs-Moberg and Maria Petersson (2005)

Oxytocin, a Mediator of Anti-stress, Well-being, Social Interaction, Growth and Healing