Relaxation techniques, ranging from deep breathing exercises, biofeedback, and self-hypnosis to yoga, meditation, and tai chi, have one primary thing in common, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. They produce a natural physiological response in the body marked by slower breathing, lower blood pressure, and a feeling of deep relaxation and well-being.
Over the past several decades, researchers have found the relaxation response can help a variety of health conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, chemotherapy-induced nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease, headaches, and other types of chronic pain. Now a study from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute for Technology Assessment and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine has found that participants in a relaxation-response training program took far fewer trips to the doctor for health problems in the year following their training than in the preceding year.
"These (relaxation training) programs promote wellness and, in our environment of constrained healthcare resources, could potentially ease the burden on our health delivery systems at minimal cost and at no real risk,” said internal medicine specialist James E. Stahl, MD, of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, who headed the study while at the Benson-Henry Institute.
Herbert Benson, MD, founder and director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and an author of the newest study, first gained fame about 40 years ago for studying and promoting techniques to produce what’s now known as the "relaxation response.” The new study employed Benson's relaxation response techniques which aim to produce the opposite of stress-driven symptoms in the body linked to the fight-or-flight response.
The researchers compiled data on over 4,000 people who participated from 2006 to 2014 in the Benson-Henry Institute Relaxation Response Resiliency Program, which helps people reduce stress by using relaxation techniques along with social and psychological support. Records showed that after the relaxation response training, the participants’ interactions with healthcare providers and the number of lab tests, imagining studies, and procedures they needed dropped about 43 percent in the following year. The greatest reduction in medical tests and doctor visits were for neurological, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal complaints.
Practicing relaxation techniques, ranging from the Benson-Henry Institute training program to more individual practices, like meditation and yoga, represent an effective form of natural preventive care that appears to offer significant protection against future health problems, the researchers concluded.
In fact, those who learned and practiced the relaxation response had such a dramatic decrease in their need for healthcare services, the research team recommends that teaching people relaxation techniques should be part of regular preventive healthcare at your doctor’s office — alongside standard medical advice on exercise, nutrition, and getting flu shots.
“From a public health perspective, it is better to be prepared to offer these tools to people in their customary settings than to wait for them to seek out these interventions,” said Stahl. “For that reason, we feel that mind body interventions — which are both low-cost and essentially risk-free — should perhaps be incorporated into regular preventive care."
Relaxation techniques are generally considered safe for healthy people. However, people with serious physical or mental health problems should discuss their use of the relaxation response with their doctors. The National Institute for Complimentary and Integrative Health offers additional information on relaxation response techniques, including research findings and potential health benefits.
January 26, 2016
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA