The Relaxation Response for Grief & Stress

We now have scientific proof that the mind can heal the body.
Dr. Henry Benson Relaxation Revolution: The Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing

Relaxation Response
The Relaxation Response can melt away stress caused by grief.

One of the most helpful relaxation techniques I have encountered is called the Relaxation Response. Coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, cardiologist and founder of Harvard’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, this practice has been proven time and again to lower stress levels, reduce blood pressure, and increase well-being. In fact, the Relaxation Response is the antidote to the fight-flight-freeze response we experience when stressed. Dr. Benson’s research has shown that regular practice of the Relaxation Response can even repair cells damaged by stress.

In my experience, bereaved people in my groups feel the benefit of the Relaxation Response after just one attempt. I believe this is because when we are grieving we rarely take time out for ourselves until we are encouraged to do so. In fact, I believe this is the case even when we are not grieving. Grief can be a wake-up call to manage our stress – to relieve our suffering now and improve our health for the future.

Grief & Stress

It is no surprise that grief ranks high on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Death of a spouse ranks the highest- 100 life change units – and death of a close family member is not far behind at 63. Not that you can put a number on grief, mind you. These numbers are a technique to measure how stress affects health – not to imply that there is a hierarchy to loss.

If you are grieving, you don’t need me to tell you that grief is accompanied by an entourage of stressors. You probably know firsthand the impact loss has on your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. It is very important during this time that you take care of your body. Your physical health will influence how you feel, not just in your body but in your mind, too.

So where do you begin? When I work with grief support groups or individuals I often start with the Relaxation Response. You do not need to have any particular physical capability, nor do you need any fancy equipment. The technique is very simple and easy to memorize. You do not need to have any special belief system, although you can incorporate your spirituality into this meditation.

Exercise: The Relaxation Response

Preparation: Find a quiet space where you will not be disturbed. Sit in a comfortable position, or lay down on a mat or blanket, and close your eyes.

  1. Beginning at your feet, move your awareness up your body inviting each group of muscles to relax, all the way to the crown of your head.
  2. Notice each inhale and each exhale. Start to follow the pattern of your breath.
  3. As you exhale, silently repeat a word or short phrase. Repeat this each time you exhale. You can choose a neutral word such as “one,” an encouraging word such as “peace” or “relax.” You can also choose a short prayer or mantra, such as “Shalom,”  “Om,” “Let go, let God,” or any other phrase that feels right to you.
  4. When you get distracted, or forget to repeat your word, simply start again. This is a normal part of the process, and it is important that you do not beat yourself up for getting off track. Simply trying to stay focused is enough.
  5. Repeat this for 10 to 20 minutes.

Closing: When you have finished, you may wish to sit in silence for a few minutes before returning to your daily activities. If you keep a Journal, this will be a good time to record your experience.

Practice Suggestions:

  • Practice this technique for 20 minutes a day, even if you split it into 2 ten minute sessions.
  • It is better to practice five minutes a day every day than 30 minutes once a week.
  • If possible do not practice within two hours after a meal.
  • You may also practice the Relaxation Response during other activities, such as while you are walking, running, gardening or knitting. Simply pay attention to your breath and body and repeat your word during any repetitive motion.

Heather Stang

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Mindfulness & Grief. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She has led mindfulness-based grief workshops for organizations such as the National Fallen Firefighters Association and Hospice of Frederick County, and is a member of the Association of Death Education and Counseling. Heather’s mission is to help people who are grieving to stay healthy and benefit from the transformative experience of grief, using mindfulness-based practices, relaxation, and expressive arts. She has an established practice offering Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions, day-long retreats, and 8 Week Yoga for Grief groups. She is based in Maryland. You can find her on Google +.