The relaxation response is associated with reduced psychological distress and physiological changes such as a decrease in oxygen consumption, heart rate and blood pressure. Regularly evoking it counteracts the physiological effects of the stress response and builds resilience. It can help cure health issues caused or worsened by chronic stress, such as memory loss, lack of ability to focus, insomnia, hypertension, and anxiety disorders. All in all, any practice that can trigger your relaxation response is a powerful recovery tool.
Slowing down Physiology
In the seventies, Herbert Benson, former professor of at Harvard Medical School, found that evoking the relaxation response trough 10 minutes of meditation can have a powerful impact on your physiology and may lower your overall metabolism even more than when you are fast asleep.
In 1982, John Hoffman, a colleague of Benson’s, found that people who evoke the relaxation response regularly have reduced responsivity to the stress response. What that means is that their bodies react differently to the activation of their sympathetic system. When they would activate their stress response, their stress hormones would increase, but this would NOT be reflected in increased blood pressure or heart rate. In other words, these people where having increased sympathetic nervous activity: more adrenaline and noradrenalin, not resulting in higher blood pressure.
Changing the Brain
In 2000, Sara Lazar, a Harvard researcher, found that regular activation of the relaxation response by practice of meditation, activates brain structures involved in attention and the control of the autonomic nervous system. She showed that people who regularly evoke the relaxation response by meditation have an overall increased quietude in their brain. She also showed that the areas that are responsible for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing become more active when people trigger the relaxation response.
In 2005, Lazar was the first to provide structural evidence that linked regular activation of the relaxation response, through basic meditation, with changes in the brain’s physical structure. Lazar found that meditators had increased ‘cortical thickness’ in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing. In the past decade, many other studies have shown comparable results. Additionally, they have shown that the increases in cortical thickness result in a healthier and more resilient brain; one that is better equipped to deal with mental and emotional demands.
Changing the Activity of the Genes
In 2013, Manoj K. Bhasin, a Harvard scholar, and colleagues showed that triggering the relaxation response causes many of your genes switch to a different mode. Genes that counteract the chemical effects of stress get more active, and those responsible for driving inflammation and alert states take a backseat. Together these changes reduce stress. Over time they build resilience, and enhance your health and wellbeing.
N.B. It’s important to realize that why all the found changes, due to triggering the relaxation response, are more profound in experienced practitioners, they are all significant even with the absolute beginners. Furthermore, as with and forms of exercise, the benefits only persist when the relaxation response is evoked regularly. When you stop regular practice, your results will equally diminish.