The philosopher Lao Tsu tells us, “Stillness brings order to the universe.” He also asked, “Who can sit quietly while the muddy pool settles?”

In the every-increasing pace and variety of activities of contemporary life, most of us will at times feel overwhelmed, stressed or not sure what to do next. At moments like these, it is wise to follow the sage’s advice and slow down, sit, breathe, let the situation be what it is. The path forward will become clear.

Stress affects our entire system and unrelieved or post-traumatic stress can wear us down physically, emotionally and mentally. It can affect our social relationships, work and our health. Many conditions from heart disease, hypertension, depression, anxiety, even cancer and dementia have been linked to chronic stress.

What can we do?

At a recent presentation to some graduate nursing faculty, I shared a number of techniques that I have learned, practiced and taught to patients and students over the years. All are quite simple and merely require us to redirect our attention for a brief period of time to return to that well of stillness that resides deep within all of us.

Some of these, you are likely familiar with such as mindfulness, deep breathing, imagery, self-hypnosis, repetitive exercise or prayer. Any of these may be a useful tool to build our resilience to day-to-day stressors.

A longtime favorite approach of mine is the so-called “relaxation response.” Developed by Harvard cardiologist, Dr. Herbert Benson, this simple system of relaxation brings together physiology and meditative traditions into a highly effective, easily applicable technique. The relaxation response is a certain way to decrease our body’s stress hormones and chemicals, lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve oxygen consumption and even reduce pain.

It consists of just two essential steps:

1. Breathe

2. Focus

Well, OK, there is a little bit more explanation necessary — but that is essentially the drill. We relax into deep diaphragmatic breathing, focus on a word or phrase we find centering and calming. Any word will do, but many folks choose some word like peace, one, relax or ocean. Some prefer a short phrase or quote from their religious scripture.

When our thoughts drift, we return our attention to the single word or phrase and pay attention to our breathing. Sitting with this method for just ten or twenty minutes can impact our physiology, mood and lead to a deep sense of relaxation and mindful presence.

So here are the steps to the relaxation response unpacked a bit more:

1. Focus word

2. Sit quietly in comfortable position

3. Close your eyes

4. Relax muscles

5. Breath slowly, naturally, repeat focus word

6. Assume a passive attitude

7. Continue 10 to 20 minutes

8. Daily practice

9. When distracting thoughts occur, return to focus word, breathing

Don’t try too hard to relax! Just let it come quietly, easily, naturally. With practice, you’ll notice improved health, mental well-being and ability to cope with the world around you very quickly. A “mini-relaxation” version of this incorporating just three to 10 breath cycles can be applied and repeated ad-lib. This is very nice for those pressure moments we all get at times.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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