February is National Heart Disease Awareness Month.  According to the American Heart Association, nearly 2,400 Americans die every day from cardiovascular disease. Yes, EVERY DAY. But the vast majority of these deaths can be prevented.

Though too many people are unwilling to commit to the steps necessary for heart disease prevention – things like losing weight, exercising, cutting out junk food, even flossing your teeth, one preventative measure takes little time and effort, and really feels good! What is it? Relaxing.

Studies have shown a link between heart health and the stress-related hormone, cortisol. So now you have one more great reason to de-stress and decompress.

Ever since Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School conducted landmark studies in the 1970s, showing the ravages of stress and the physiological health benefits of  “the relaxation response,” countless experts have agreed – and additional studies have concurred — that relaxation can have immense physical benefits, from lowering blood pressure to reducing heart disease.  It is estimated that 60% to 90% of doctors’ office visits are in the mind-body, stress-related realm.

The relaxation response, according to Dr. Benson, who is still a professor with Harvard Medical School and now lectures all over the world, is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress. It is the opposite of the fight or flight response.

But on top of all the science citing the whys and wherefores of stress and relaxation, Dr. Benson also found through research exactly how to elicit the relaxation response.  This is all documented, and easily accessible to anyone, in his book entitled, not surprisingly, The Relaxation Response.  The book, originally published in 1975, is still the gold standard for healthcare professionals and just plain folk who want to learn how to stem the negative effects of stress and improve health through relaxation.

In today’s hurried world, what with email, voice mail, cell phones and smart phones, text messages, laptops, and myriad social media networks, we carry our ever-growing to-do lists with us every moment of every day. Multitasking has become a part of everyday life. At any given time, most of us are actively working on, or overseeing, a handful of projects and problems all at once, making it nearly impossible to slow down and relax.

The Relaxation Response explains how anyone can learn relaxation techniques to manage stress.  Practicing these techniques once or twice a day for just ten minutes at a time, can effectively lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, improve oxygen absorption, and improve feelings of peace and contentment, which can not only make you healthier, but often make you more successful both in the workplace and at home.

Dr. Benson’s 6-step technique centers on repetition of a word, sound, prayer, or phrase, and includes passive disregard of other thoughts.  In short:

1.    Sit quietly in a comfortable position.

2.    Close your eyes.

3.    Deeply relax all of your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep your muscles relaxed.

4.    Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out (exhale), say your chosen word or sound, for example, “ONE,” silently to yourself. Breathe IN then OUT, say “ONE”; breathe IN then OUT, say “ONE”, etc. Breathe easily and naturally.  Choose any soothing, smooth sound, preferably with no meaning or association, to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts.

5.    Continue for 10 to 20 minutes (depending on your schedule). You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed, then with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.

6.    Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating your word or “ONE.” With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.

Besides relying on this technique for stress management, some people regularly use it to get to sleep at night, especially after a long, hard day or before a tough next day.

It’s simple to do, at a minimum of 10 minutes and a maximum of 20, as little as once a day. If you do it once a day, try shortly after waking, before breakfast.  If you want to try twice a day, adding a second session before dinnertime is also very effective.  Whether you start with one or two times a day, start.  It’s easy to fit into almost anyone’s schedule, and most importantly, it works in many ways, not the least is in helping lower your heart disease risks.

So in celebration of February’s National Heart Disease Awareness Month – and your own commitment to well being, take some time to explore this and other positive choices to enjoy a healthier, happier life.