Two Simple Steps To Counter The Harmful Effects Of Stress


In the 1960s, a young cardiologist named Dr. Herbert Benson had been sneaking transcendental meditators through the back door of his lab at Harvard University to study what happened to their body when they meditated. The result of his work was one of the major breakthroughs in modern mind body medicine.


Dr. Benson found dramatic physiological changes in the bodies of his subjects. He recorded decreased metabolism in the body, decreased heart rate, decreased rate of breathing and slower brain waves. He called his discovery the ‘relaxation response’ to suggest its role as a counter part to the stress response which had been discovered in the exact same lab at Harvard Medical School by Walter B. Cannon in the 1920s.


His discovery heralded a new era of scientific enquiry into how the mind and body interact to influence our health outcomes. “This now was science. Here was something measurable, predictable and reproducible,” says Benson.


I interviewed Dr. Benson for The Connection because he is considered by many people to be the founding father of modern mind body medicine. Now in his 80s, Dr. Benson has dedicated his life’s work to the study of the relaxation response and I was amazed to find that his groundbreaking research continues to this day.


Recently, his team at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine  looked at the genetic expression of people who evoked the relaxation response and the results revealed that it can flip the switched on genes affecting disease. More remarkably, they discovered that the genomic expression changes occur the very first time you evoke the response. The more times you do it daily, the more anchored the response.


This was a break through moment in my own healing journey. Doctors had told me that my autoimmune disease was genetic in nature, that I just had bad genes and there wasn’t much to be done. But here was a professor of medicine from Harvard telling me that even the expression of the genes causing my illness could be changed. The next question I had was how could I ensure that I was evoking the relaxation response when I meditated and the answer was remarkably simple.


When we meditate we’re encouraged to focus our attention on just one thing such as our breath, or sensations in the body, or the sounds around us. When other thoughts rise up, we’re encouraged to let them go and return to our focused awareness. According to Dr. Benson’s research, this is central to evoking the relaxation response in the body. “The two basic features of evoking the relaxation response are a repetition and the disregard of other thoughts when they come to mind. And what those two things do is break the train of everyday thinking,” says Benson.


Dr. Benson explains that it’s often the train of everyday thinking that is causing stress in our lives. We’re worried about things that have happened in our past or may happen in our future and those thoughts are causing stress chemicals and hormones to be released in our body.


When Dr. Benson returned to the literature of the world to see whether these two steps that are breaking the train of everyday thinking had been described before, he was astonished to find that every single culture of human kind had these two steps. “There’s a commonality. So if a person argues my technique or my religion is better for bringing this forth than another, it’s foolish because it’s a bodily response. Just as there are scores of techniques that are stressful – same fight or flight response – so there are scores of approaches that evoke the relaxation response,” he says.


I hope you enjoy this extract from The Connection where Dr. Benson explains how to evoke the relaxation response.




  • Nicole Lascurain


    I hope all is well with you. Healthline just published an infographic detailing the effects of stresson the body. This is an interactive chart allowing the reader to pick the side effect they want to learn more about.

    You can see the overview of the report here:

    Our users have found our guide very useful and I thought it would be a great resource for your page:

    I would appreciate it if you could review our request and consider adding this visual representation of the effects of stress to your site or sharing it on your social media feeds.

    Please let me know if you have any questions.

    All the best,

    Nicole Lascurain • Assistant Marketing Manager

    p: 415-281-3100 | f: 415-281-3199

    Healthline • The Power of Intelligent Health

    660 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 | @Healthline | @HealthlineCorp

    About Us:

  • Avi

    Hi Shannon,

    Great blog yet again…thanks!

    Referring to the introductory paragraphs of the article about the 'Two Simple Steps to Counter the Harmful Effects of Stress' and specifically to " the mind and body interact to influence our health outcomes..", there so happens to be an Aussie connection to recognition that mind and body are one, rather than two separate entities.

    The fact was that FM Alexander, a Taswegian/Tasmanian who developed the not so well known Alexander Technique was the possibly the first modern era 'scientist', back at the end of the C19th/beginning C20th to recognize 'this connectivity', although apparently one of the Greek philosophers – possible Socrates(?) – also identified this connection, a several millenia ago!

    Cheers, Avi

  • Shannon

    Hi Avi,
    Thanks for your feedback and the extra info about the Alexander Technique. I'll check it out.

  • Bent Abouda

    many thanks dr benson for this demonstration, demonstration to who is wondering why people pray?! prayers good for health, mind, mood…

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.



I have a confession to make.   Even though I’m a health journalist who extensively researches and writes about the latest science proving there’s ...


I was giving a talk recently to a group of people interested in hearing more about my road to good health after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. The ...


I remember the first time I saw someone working at a stand-up desk. It was 2009 and a colleague had rearranged the furniture in her office and needed some help ...


The Connection is a feature documentary and blog about integrating the latest science in mind body medicine into our everyday lives.


Sign up to The Connection newsletter and stay in the loop.