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Home >  Stress >  Meditation and Muscle Relaxation
Articles on Dealing with Stress
Meditation and Muscle Relaxation
Author: Cleaves M. Bennett MD FACP
Monday, January 07, 2008

Meditation

Meditation means learning to pay attention to something calming. If your head is full of worries and concerns and regrets and plans and dreams and schemes—and you want to quiet them, you can learn to pay less attention to them.

I'm not saying you try to switch off your worries. That's like trying very hard not to think of elephants for thirty seconds. It just makes you think about them even more. But you can pay less attention to your worries and learn to pay attention to something else. That's called meditation.

You can meditate by watching a candle, or by paying attention to your breath, or by learning a mantra—a phrase or word that doesn't mean anything, that you can repeat to yourself without it summoning up any emotions. Or you can simply meditate on your own body, paying attention to it. When you find one of your muscles is tense, and quietly put your awareness there, you'll find the tension tends to evaporate all by itself. That's another type of meditation.

Meditation is a skill that anyone can learn. Again, it takes practice. And when you spend some time focusing on something completely harmless and inconsequential, the emergency nervous system shuts off.

Dr. Herbert Benson's book, The Relaxation Response, talks about the effects of simple meditation on the body. His studies at Harvard showed that when you meditate your blood pressure goes down, your pulse rate slows down, and you enter a calm, relaxed state with alpha waves in the brain; your parasympathetic nervous system is on and the emergency system is shut off.

If you can do that, consciously and deliberately, by your own choice, for twenty or thirty minutes a day, it won't only make those twenty or thirty minutes relaxed and calm—it actually has a positive effect for the rest of the day, too.

And if you do meditation on a daily basis—any kind of meditation—it actually has a very positive effect week after week, month after month. As far as the body is concerned, meditation is often more relaxing and restful than sleep. In fact you can actually treat high blood pressure just with meditation, and for some people it's enough. Mary had the biggest smile on her face that I'd ever seen. She sat there, watching me read over her chart, with the kind of excited anticipation you might have if you were watching someone open the perfect present you just gave them. In her fifties, black, divorced, I knew Mary probably faced more stress in one day than I did in a whole week. Her blood pressure had proved to be very resistant to medication after medication.

A few weeks before when she had tried to tell me how tense and worried she often was, my white middle-class self really couldn't relate to it very well at first. I remember starting to "advise" her about not letting things get to her so much. My mouth was full of reassurance— the kind that sounds wonderful but usually doesn't help too much. After I had had my go at it she looked me in the eye and asked, "Have you ever seen a gang war—up close?" I gulped and shook my head, "No."

"That's what was happening on my street last night," she told me, "a gang war. Hundreds of young men were breaking and smashing everything in sight. And police cars, fire engines, helicopters—all right outside my window. I was so scared; I didn't know what to do." At that moment I was pretty sure that my "helpful advice" wasn't going to be much help.

Yet here she was, coming into my office four weeks later, with this enormous smile on her face. Her blood pressure was down! She'd gone on the diet and even started meditating. That's right, meditating. She waved a well-worn copy of Herb Benson's book at me and said, "This is my new bible!" And she looked more calm and self-confident than I had ever seen her.

I looked at her numbers again, and it was true. Her blood pressure was way down. She told all the other patients in the waiting room what she had learned and what had happened to her. And you know, a lot of people got the message that day.

Muscle Relaxation

Muscle relaxation is the final technique I want to describe for you here. I've already mentioned that we can carry muscle tension around for weeks or months, or even years, without feeling it. So how can we relax tense muscles—if we can't even feel the tension?

It's really easy. If you tense your muscles even more, they become momentarily exhausted and will then relax quite readily by themselves. So muscle relaxation involves progressively tensing, and then relaxing, every muscle in your body in turn, starting with your toes and working all the way up to your scalp. I know that sounds time-consuming, but it's actually very easy to do and only takes about ten or fifteen minutes.

And it's so refreshing. As your muscles relax, the emergency nervous system turns off and your whole system cools down. Meditation, muscle relaxation, and positive imagery are three ways to quiet the mind and switch off the emergency nervous system. And any human being can learn to do that, using one or another of these techniques. But you need to learn them by doing them—and by frequent practice. And you can ask other people for help in the beginning. At the back of the book you'll find some scripts for tapes that you (or a friend or family member with a calm, soothing voice) can record and play back to yourself and that will help you to learn these skills.

There's a wonderful moment when it all clicks and you've learned a new kind of balance—a balance that's not only very healthy for you, but deeply satisfying and relaxing. In fact at the clinic people often tell me they enjoyed the exercises and the cooking program, and that the food was wonderful, but the best thing of all was the class in stress reduction and relaxation. This is what can really affect the quality of your life, more than anything else!

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