People deal with job search-related stress in various ways. Some of these ways are healthy, like exercise, getting sufficient sleep and eating a proper diet. Some are not so healthy, like an obsession with the Internet, overeating and turning to alcohol or drugs. An increasingly popular and effective way to deal with stress of any kind is practicing such relaxation techniques as meditation, yoga, deep breathing or prayer, and a recent study by researchers in Boston is just the latest to confirm the value of these techniques by studying what’s known as the relaxation response.
The research, conducted by investigators at Boston’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, found that when people are able produce the relaxation response – a physiologic state that alters the physical and emotional response to stress – immediate changes occur at the genetic level in their bodies.
Previous studies have documented how the relaxation response both alleviates symptoms of anxiety and many other disorders and also affects factors such as heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen consumption and brain activity. A 2008 study found that long-term practice of the relaxation response changed the expression of genes involved with the body’s response to stress. (Gene expression is a way that genes convey information that is used in the creation of certain products like proteins.)
The current study examined changes produced during a single session of relaxation response practice, as well as those taking place over longer periods of time.
Although many studies have proved that the relaxation response can reduce stress and enhance wellness, for the first time the key physiological means by which these benefits might be induced have been identified, according to Herbert Benson, MD, director-emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute. And now researchers have a better understanding of how this might work.
Effect of relaxation response
The study enrolled a group of 26 healthy adults who had no previous experience in relaxation response practice. They completed an eight-week relaxation response training course, which began by them listening to a 20-minute health education CD about relaxation. Blood tests were given before and after they listened to the CD, as well as after the training was completed.
A set of blood samples was also taken from another group of 25 participants – people who had between four and 25 years of experience using different techniques to elicit the relaxation response – both before and after they listened to the same relaxation response CD as those going through the eight-week program.
The blood samples revealed significant changes in gene expression, or the way several important groups of genes conveyed information, between the initial samples and those taken after the training was completed. Pathways controlled by the activation of a protein called NF-κB – known to have a prominent role in inflammation, stress, trauma and cancer – were suppressed in the bodies of the participants after they were able to produce the relaxation response they learned in the training program.
While this and other research helps doctors and scientists better understand exactly what impact relaxation techniques have on the body, it’s just a beginning. The same researchers who conducted this study are expanding their efforts to examine how the changes induced by mind/body interventions affect pathways involved in such diseases as hypertension and inflammatory bowel disease.
For more information, visit the Massachusetts General Hospital’s website at www.massgeneral.org/about/pressrelease.aspx?id=1583
For more information about the benefits of meditation see Action Plan, Meditation Why Bother?: A Taste of Mindfulness Meditation at www.jailstojobs.org/html/meditation.html
Many hospitals, doctors, social workers and others across the U.S., including Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, teach classes in mindfulness based stress reduction that focuses on meditation and relaxation. The courses are based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor-emeritus of medicine and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. You can find a program in your area by visiting w3.umassmed.edu/MBSR/public/searchmember.aspx
For online meditation instructions and places to learn and practice from a Buddhist perspective check out www.buddhanet.net/insight.htm