Integrating The Relaxation Response

Millennia before Harvard University’s Dr. Herbert Benson documented the health benefits of the relaxation response in humans, Eastern and Western religions quietly espoused mindful reflection, contemplative meditation and repetitive prayer. Many of these religious traditions shared the practices of abdominal breathing and centered thought. Dr. Benson’s secular and scientific measurements suggested that a couple of 15-minute sessions of deliberately quieting the mind and body each day can dramatically lower hypertension, a leading cause of arteriosclerosis and death.

More recently, organized camping also embraced the mind-body link and the health benefits of physical and psychological calm, though in more folksy ways. Indeed, for more than a century and a half, campers have enjoyed rest hours, nature hikes, sunrises, sunsets and stargazing. These informal and sometimes entertaining ways of quieting the mind and body are seldom highlighted in camps’ promotional materials, but these approaches punctuate an otherwise hectic day with necessary relaxation. In the last decade, more and more camps are intentionally integrating mind-body medicine into daily programs. The results are fantastic.

Getting Started

The relaxation response is simple, although becoming good at it takes practice. Start by finding a quiet location. Then sit or lie in a relaxed position. In your mind, focus on a peaceful image or repeat a word or phrase that helps you feel at peace. The word or phrase can be secular, religious, vaguely spiritual or made-up. Examples include: “serenity” or “God first, others second, myself last” or “phassan.” Thoughts will enter your mind. Consider each thought and then return to the peaceful image, word or phrase. Depending on your location, you may also notice movement or sounds around you. Simply let those sounds become part of the overall experience of comfort and relaxation. Continue this mindful meditation for 10 to 20 minutes, once or twice a day.

The relaxation response–also called mindfulness meditation–can be performed in a bus, at your desk at work or lying in bed at night before falling asleep. The location is less important than the mindset, but many people discover they can achieve deeper relaxation in a quiet spot. Fortunately, most day camps and resident camps have an abundance of quiet spots, many quite beautiful. (As a footnote, I urge you to eliminate loudspeaker announcements or pages during any scheduled mind-body sessions. Indeed, you may wish to eliminate loudspeakers altogether, relying instead on in-person messaging.)

Study after study has proven the physical and mental health benefits of integrating the relaxation response into one’s daily routine. Here are six benefits, presented along with camp-based examples of how staff members might integrate mind-body practices into the daily schedule.

Appreciation Of Nature

When two staff members bring a dozen campers to the woods, a field or the water’s edge, magic can happen. Simply sitting, without talking, as a group, has tremendous calming power. Campers will hear sounds they never noticed before, including wind, birds, waves, leaves and small animals. This summer a camper told me, as we sat cross-legged on a basketball court next to a grove of trees, “I’ve grown up on a street full of oak trees, but this is the first time I ever heard an acorn fall. It’s really cool.” Add some instruction on the relaxation response, and double the benefit of this type of quiet time.

Connections To Others

Most staff members don’t realize how much social pressure exists at camp. Campers feel pressure to make friends, be popular, showcase athletic prowess, and even spark romance. Teaching campers the relaxation response is a bonding experience they won’t soon forget. Cabin leaders at overnight camps and group counselors at day camps both rave about the way rest-hour meditation sessions can put young people at ease. Conversations seem to flow, and campers seem more comfortable with one another after learning the response together. If electronic music is permitted at your camp, encourage staff to download a selection of relaxing tracks, and get camper feedback on their favorites. Gone are the days of free-for-all rest hours and the staccato shout, “Kids, quiet down!”

Emotion Regulation

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