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National Institutes of Health • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

NCCAM Clinical Digest

Stress and Relaxation Techniques :
What the Science Says

December 2012
A woman relaxes with her head on a pillow.

In the past 30 years, there has been considerable interest in the relaxation response and how inducing this state may benefit health. Research has focused primarily on illness and conditions in which stress appears to play a role either as the cause of the condition or as a factor that can make the condition worse. In general, relaxation techniques appear to be safe.

Currently, there is some evidence that relaxation techniques may be an effective part of an overall treatment plan for some stress-related disorders, including:

Anxiety

  • Studies have suggested that relaxation techniques may assist in the treatment of phobias or panic disorder.
  • Relaxation techniques have also been used to relieve anxiety for people in stressful situations, such as when undergoing a medical procedure.

Depression

  • In 2008, a major review of the evidence for relaxation in the treatment of depression found that relaxation techniques were more effective than no treatment for depression, but not as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Headache

  • There is some evidence that biofeedback and other relaxation techniques may be helpful for relieving tension or migraine headaches. In some cases, these mind and body techniques were more effective than medications for reducing the frequency, intensity, and severity of headaches.

The results of research on relaxation to promote overall health or well-being or to treat other stress-related health conditions have been mixed or unclear. These conditions include:

Asthma

  • Several reviews of the literature have suggested that relaxation techniques, including guided imagery, may temporarily help improve lung function and quality of life and relieve anxiety in people with asthma.
  • A more recent randomized clinical trial of asthma found that relaxation techniques may help improve immune function. However, more studies are needed to confirm this finding.

Heart Disease and Heart Symptoms

  • Researchers have looked at relaxation techniques for the treatment of angina and the prevention of heart disease. When a cardiac rehabilitation program was combined with relaxation response training in a clinic, participants experienced significant reductions in blood pressure, decreases in lipid levels, and increases in psychological functioning when compared to participants’ status before the program.
  • Although studies have shown that relaxation techniques combined with other lifestyle changes and standard medical care may reduce the risk of recurrent heart attack, more study is needed.

High Blood Pressure

  • A 2008 review of evidence for relaxation techniques in the treatment of high blood pressure found some evidence that progressive muscle relaxation lowered blood pressure a small amount. However, the review found no evidence that this effect was enough to reduce the risk of heart disease; stroke, or other health issues due to high blood pressure.
  • In a randomized controlled trial, 8 weeks of relaxation response/stress management was shown to reduce systolic blood pressure in hypertensive older adults, and some patients were able to reduce hypertension medication without an increase in blood pressure.

Insomnia

  • There is some evidence that relaxation techniques can help in treating chronic insomnia.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

  • Some studies have indicated that relaxation techniques may prevent or relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in some participants.
  • One review of the research found some evidence that self-hypnosis may be useful in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome.

NCCAM Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, NIH, DHHS. NCCAM Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on CAM, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCAM-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, training CAM researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCAM's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCAM Web site at nccam.nih.gov. NCCAM is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.

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