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Book review: ‘The Relaxation Response’ by Dr Herbert Benson

By Nicola Phelan

24 Jul 2018

‘The Relaxation Response’ by Dr Herbert Benson

Senior consultant Nicola Phelan shares her response to Dr Benson’s book about relaxation and mindfulness – The Relaxation Response.

Increasingly, people are taking an interest in mindfulness. I completed a mindfulness course, which introduced me to this book. The reviews said that this book “started it all” and “could be the most important book of your life”. One review even said the book could “…save our lives.” Naturally, I wanted to find out more.

Dr Benson has been teaching a simple technique to support mindfulness and reduce the effects of stress for more than 40 years. The technique is widely recommended by healthcare professionals.

The first few chapters of this book provide context. When Dr Benson and his team came to develop the relaxation response, they went against the medical establishment to show the connection between mind and body, brain activity and physical manifestations.

Straight away you learn how, just as our natural fight or flight response can be triggered by stressful scenarios, a relaxation response can be easily triggered with four essential components. We find out early in the book, in the foreword, what these components are:

1. A quiet environment
2. A mental device – a sound, word or a fixed gaze
3. A passive attitude, not worrying about how good you are it
4. A comfortable position.

I read this and initially thought – that’s it?! After all the years of hypothesizing and experiments, these four things are what science says can save us all? In the foreword!

I am naturally pessimistic, so to be ‘given’ the answer so soon in the book – with no big reveal – made me wonder what was the point of reading on? But, I remembered what I’d learnt on my mindfulness course and the purpose of me buying the book, and I carried on.

A chapter or so in, I didn’t question anymore – what a book! I really enjoyed it and I finished it in a few days.
The book delves into the scientific, which is great if you like to understand how and why something works. It covers the biology of our body and stress – fight or flight – and how inappropriate triggers lead to high blood pressure.

It’s pretty-fascinating stuff: the vital function of our arteries and the way in which heart attacks and strokes develop within the body, complete with medical diagrams to really get your head around it.

The book discusses thoughts and experiments with meditation, mental control and sleep, which are full of little nuggets of information you’ll want to remember. I’ve turned down so many pages of this book to come back to!

When I got into the detail of the relaxation response, in chapter seven, I was desperate to know what the secret is, and it’s pretty much dealt with in a few pages. What initially put me off the relaxation response, became the secret. The relaxation response is very simple. It’s easy to learn and we can all do it.

The book shows us that 10 – 20 minutes of practise a day will make a difference to our lives and our management of stress. There’s just so much science in this book, which explores experiments in such a factual way, any questions and doubts seem irrelevant and it’s hard not to agree with the premise.

While I haven’t reached the goal of practising every day, based on the little I have done, I think I would agree with the benefits and the simplicity of it.

This book is not just an interesting, educational read but a useful one too. For me – someone not requiring a medical intervention for stress – I don’t know if this book is life-saving, but it is life-enhancing.

And, although the book was first written more than 40 years ago, I’d say the technique is very much still relevant today. Living the 100-mile-an-hour lifestyle we live (which ironically made me consider not finishing this book in the first place!) maybe we need the relaxation response more than ever?

Give it a go!

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