How Focus Words and Breathing Can Help You Relax and Heal

How Focus Words and Breathing Can Help You Relax and Heal

Nick Heath, PhD Nick Heath, PhD
4 minute read

Focus words, or mantras, have been used by health and spiritual practitioners for millennia. Although the term “mantras” has somewhat unscientific connotations, they’re a highly studied and valuable tool. 

In particular, they help elicit one of the body’s most potent healing states, the relaxation response (RR). In this article, you will learn what the RR is, how focus words and phrases can be used to elicit it, and instructions for using this approach to live a calmer, healthier, and happier life. 

Let’s get started with the basics of the RR.

The Relaxation Response: Our Body’s Antidote to Stress

The term “relaxation response” was coined by Harvard physician Herbert Benson, MD, who discovered the phenomenon.  Stated simply, the RR is the exact opposite of the stress response. 

When we’re stressed, we activate the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) branch of the nervous system.  This increases heart rate and blood pressure while releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine. 

The RR counteracts this state.  It describes the activation of the nervous system’s parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) branch.  Some of the physiological characteristics of the RR include decreased heart rate and blood pressure, reduced metabolism, a calmer mind, and increased feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. 

Decades of research have shown that the RR is a therapeutic tool in many stress-related chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular and immunological diseases, anxiety, and depression.

Focus Words and the Relaxation Response

To elicit the relaxation response, Dr. Benson suggests picking a focus word or phrase to place your attention on. 

There is no right or wrong way to pick yours.  For example, if you’re religious, you might choose a word or prayer that resonates with your faith (in fact, Dr. Benson suggests doing this, as it can deepen your RR response).

If you’re not religious, you can pick a secular word/phrase that resonates with you.  For example, “peace,” “ocean,” or “calm” are good options.  No one will ever know your word or phrase, so try out different options until you find the right one.    

Also note that this isn’t setting you up for a Saturday Night Live positive affirmation skit.  Although the focus word/phrase should make you feel good, it’s primarily there to activate specific regions of the brain associated with attention and memory, which helps elicit the RR more easily. 

Using the RR in Your Life

Drawing from two of Dr. Benson’s books, Relaxation Revolution and Timeless Healing, here are basic instructions for eliciting the relaxation response in your life:

  1. Pick a focus word or phrase that resonates with you.
  2. Find a quiet place and sit or lie in a comfortable position.
  3. Focus on your breathing.
  4. With each exhale, say your word/phrase in your head. Extend it for the length of your exhale.  For example, “peace” might become “peeaaacceee” to match your exhale.
  5. Assume a passive attitude. When other thoughts intrude, say to yourself, “oh well,” and go back to your focus word/phrase.
  6. Let go of expectations—don’t anticipate any miraculous results. Simply focus on the process of repeating your mantra every time you exhale.
  7. Continue for 10-20 minutes daily (consistency is critical).

In summary, the relaxation response is a powerful tool for healing and recovery, and focus words are a critical component of making it work for you.  So, enjoy using the power of your breath, mind, and repetition for better health.



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