Integrating The Relaxation Response
By Chris Thurber
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.
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!”
Conflicts, separation anxiety and frustration are all part of life at camp. However, young people who learn the relaxation response from their counselor or cabin leader will have a new and powerful tool in their coping toolbox. Best of all, the response is internally generated, so its successful implementation makes campers feel self-confident. It isn’t a panacea for homesickness or misbehavior, but when young people learn to recognize and regulate the connection between their thoughts, their physiological response and their feelings, the frequency of behavior problems and emotional struggles dips markedly.
All people benefit from performing the relaxation response a couple times a day, but young athletes and artists at camp will be uniquely rewarded with renewed focus. Athletes have always used positive imagery (i.e., imagining themselves performing a skill well) as a way to enhance performance. Adding meditation--such as during a half-time break--to positive imagery is a potent way to enhance focus. This summer, I watched the swim-team coaches gather the team for a mind-body session just before the start of a meet. Asked what they thought of the change to the pre-meet routine, almost all campers gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Ditto for the group of campers whose arts-and-crafts instructor took them out in canoes with only charcoal pencils and paper. Their instructions were to close their eyes and listen quietly for 10 minutes, then to open their eyes and draw what they had heard.
Day camps and resident camps set a frenetic pace. It’s almost as if directors believe a slower pace might cause boredom. Coincidentally, these same directors complain that more and more campers are diagnosed with ADHD or at least have short attention spans. The path to more thoughtful behavior, less impulsivity and keen social awareness is not to shorten activity periods, purchase trendy equipment, or build more into the daily schedule. Instead, consider longer activity periods, generous transition times, and (of course) teaching all the campers the relaxation response. The young people who initially complain “This is stupid” or “I don’t have time for this” are the ones who need it the most.
Mountains of research have conclusively shown how performing the relaxation response--be it part of religious practice or as a completely secular exercise--increases immune functioning, enhances a positive mood, and lowers blood pressure. In my opinion, people who perform the relaxation response live longer, happier lives.. It’s difficult to argue with those outcomes.
In all my travels this summer, the most subtle and elegant integration of mind-body practices I witnessed was a cabin leader who began substituting morning meditation for his usual practice of blaring the latest pop song from his stereo. Inspired by a sports coach who taught him the relaxation response, he and his co-leader brought their cabin of 10 adolescent boys down to the edge of the lake each day for 20 minutes before breakfast. Rather than begin the morning by sleeping late and rushing through cabin inspection while listening to Lady Gaga, the staff encouraged the campers to sit quietly, in a comfortable position. They listened to the repetitive lapping of the tiny waves on the sandy shore and enjoyed the occasional loon call. It was nothing complicated, but a practice that many of the boys rated as one of their favorite activities on their exit questionnaires. Imagine that.
The consequences of stress are pernicious--negative emotions, clouded thinking, erratic behavior, interpersonal strain, compromised immune functioning and physical illness. The benefits of reduced stress, through routine practice of the relaxation response, include good physical and mental health, mindful behavior and better connections to the social and natural environments. Perhaps camps and other youth-serving organizations have a moral obligation to teach healthy stress management.
Summer camp is typically advertised as a non-stop, fast-paced carnival of entertainment.
Confirmation of this approach to attracting and amusing children exists on most camps’ Web sites. A Martian who visits a representative sample of camp Web sites will likely think young people need a feverish blend of brief and speedy games to grow. That same Martian might also see the irony in adults’ complaints about young people’s short attention spans, superficial social connections and ignorance of nature.
A few minutes of practicing the relaxation response each day doesn’t add to a camp’s daily schedule; it merely helps everyone get more out of what’s already offered, perhaps in healthier doses. To make mind-body approaches mainstream is an easy way for camps to be a beacon of balance in a lopsided world.
Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at SummerCampHandbook.com. He is the co-creator of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com