Most chronic back pain sufferers will try anything for relief, from costly, often-addictive drugs to surgeries to unproven alternative therapies. But what if each of us had a magic button we could push to sharply decrease pain? And what if this button was free, easy to access and proven to also improve symptoms of other illnesses ranging from hypertension to insomnia?
Mind-body pioneer Dr. Herbert Benson calls that magic button The Relaxation Response. When Benson published his book with the same name in 1975, it quickly became a bestseller and helped to launch a medical movement that is still delving into the healing power of the mind.
Benson, a Harvard Medical School doctor and researcher, presents a science-based case for a kind of meditation-light without all of the whistles and bells (or gurus), which takes only 20-40 minutes a day to succeed in lessening the symptoms of a host of common ailments – including chronic pain. The technique, which involves emptying the mind of everyday thoughts by repeating a word, or mantra, over and over, reduces the body’s consumption of oxygen and leads to drops in the level of blood lactate – a known contributor to anxiety.
Together, these physiological changes counteract the negative effects of the so-called Fight-or-Flight Response, which we all elicit wrongly in response to everyday work and family stress, Benson says. Fight-or-Flight is a human response to perceived threats which quickly increases blood pressure and breathing rate and the flow of blood to muscles. Over time, repeated experience of this response can lead to hypertension, and an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
One thing I thought was particularly interesting about Benson’s book was his documentation of religious and spiritual ceremonies that effectively have elicited a similar “relaxation response” for hundreds of years. Without discounting those proven techniques, Benson successfully demystifies the practice of meditation and prayer through repeated scientific explanation and reporting of rigorous study.
I think many people with long-term back pain understand or at least suspect that outside stress makes pain worse. These folks should put Benson’s Relaxation Response – as well as exercise, other stress management tools and good nutrition into their toolboxes.