The Multi-Sensory Environment, Relaxation and You

Linda Messbauer

Herbert Benson, MD wrote the book “The Relaxation Response” in 1975. This book was revolutionary for its time. Doctor Benson, from Harvard Medical School, was promoting alternative medicine. Or rather reaffirming what Eastern Cultures already knew and practiced, that part of the formula for good health and well-being was self-participation in the practice. He was talking about a powerful mind/body connection for our wellbeing. Doctor Benson studied Hypertension (high blood pressure) and its connection to stress. He studied the ability of the mind to control body function (bio-feedback techniques) and especially Tibetan Buddhists and their meditation practices. He examined their unique ability to increase their body temperature; demonstrating a positive link between mind/spirit and body.

Dr. Benson stated “Human beings have always felt subjected to stress and often seem to look longingly backward to more peaceful times. Yet with each generation, complexity and additional stress are added to our lives.” This, in my opinion, is even truer today than ever, especially after international terrorism and war has entered the picture. But, this is just one example of increased stress in our lives. There are others that maybe closer to home. For example, Stress associated with an unstable financial, job, or health picture and my personal favorite time or lack of it, to name a few. Dr. Benson was talking about the relationship of stress to readers with normal coping mechanisms in his book he defines …Coping: the ability to maintain a balance in life through ones own abilities and resources. He put forth the idea that the mind could control the effects of stress by eliciting a “Relaxation Response” and that this was a mechanism that was innate to each of us; “an inducible, physiologic state of quietude.” All we had to do was “learn” to use it.

In his 1975 book he outlined four essential components that would elicit the “Relaxation Response”:
1. A quiet environment.
2. A mental device – a sound, word, phrase or prayer, repeated silently or aloud, or a fixed gaze at an object.
3. A passive attitude – not worrying about how well one is performing the technique and simply putting aside distracting thoughts returning to one’s focus.
4. A comfortable position.

In 2000, in the Foreword: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Update of his book, Doctor Benson explains “that only two components are required, the mental device and the passive attitude”, to induce the “Relaxation Response.” This change spoke to two possibilities. One, that an individual could use their mind and successfully block out noise or create imagery and thus the external environment would be unimportant, and two, the realization that a comfortable position did not necessarily mean a still position; exercise/movement could be the comfortable position. He went on to say “the Relaxation Response could be evoked with any number of techniques, including Yoga or qigong, walking or swimming, even knitting or rowing.” (I’d like to point out; this is repetitive doing, a physical action repeated many times without regard to the end product.) He said, “People were encouraged to elicit the Relaxation Response in ways that were meaningful to them.” (Notice the words meaningful to them it becomes critical in appreciating one of the principles of Multi-Sensory Environments/Snoezelen Approach, but more on that later). In essence, describing the intact normal functioning person. He further studied how important the role of the belief system of a person also contributes to his positive wellbeing. Doctor Benson and his colleagues proved that the “Relaxation Response” was effective in treating hypertension, headaches, mild and moderate depression and anxiety to name a few.

I wondered about the individuals who do not have the cognitive capacity or normal coping skills to produce a “Relaxation Response” for themselves, or use their mind in such a powerful way. I wondered if I could help produce this “Relaxation Response.” I wanted to help reduce “stress” in the folks I was seeing so I could be successful with treatment.

I went back to look at the study of the Tibetan monks again to see if there were some common threads. What I found was the following:
• The monks lived in isolation. They were alone much of the time.
• They lived in natural settings. They were usually surrounded by nature.
• Their basic human needs were provided for. (Shelter, food, clothing and no need for money)
• They had no apparent stress. (No job requirement, family or time constraints)
• And most importantly, this was a lifestyle they individually chose. No one was forcing or demanding that they live this lifestyle.

As I looked at these common threads I realized that the “external environment” was playing a significant role, and so was their right to “self-determination.” Essentially the monks had control and they were living in a relatively stress-free environment. If we look at the trends today, we can see how alternative medicine and good health/wellbeing practices have entered our Western society and are promoting positive attitudes towards new helpful practices. Everything from Yoga, Tia Chi, Pong Sway, even stress management workshops , computer generated stress breaks, and corporate “naps” are common and have entered mainstream society. Schools and Corporations are incorporating such practices because it affects the bottom line. Students learn better and employees are more productive. However, there is still little being done that addresses the environmental stress factors unless it affects the corporate bottom line directly. Take for example the design of Assisted Living and Nursing Homes. They look more “home-like.” Have you seen a Sunrise Assisted Living Center? It looks like it came right out of “Gone with the Wind,” even a giant spiral staircase, takes your breath away. I want to move in tomorrow and head right to the ice cream parlor.