Relaxation techniques are among the many approaches to mental health gaining renewed attention as the Persian Gulf war takes its psychological toll.

Primed by 15 years of research suggesting these techniques have physical and mental benefits, the idea of daily pauses for "mental centering" looks even more attractive in wartime.The techniques - especially meditation - are often confused with religious practice, such as prayer or a path to enlightenment.

Most actually have little to do with religion or spirituality, however. They aim instead at a controlled "hushing" of mental activity - a process that may have measurable health benefits.

Respectability for the techniques probably goes back at least to the early 1970s, when Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard University began conducting research on people practicing Transcendental Meditation.

Benson concluded TM really did produce some of the benefits the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his adherents claimed: reduced blood pressure, slowed heartbeat, inhibited gastric acid secretion and other signs of profound rest.

He also concluded people didn't need to pay for training from TM teachers. TM's essence, he said, could be distilled into a technique he called the "relaxation response."

His recommendation:

- Find a quiet place to sit comfortably where you won't be disturbed for about 30 minutes.

- Sit quietly for a minute with eyes closed, letting the mind wander freely.

- Choose a word of few syllables that carries peaceful or relaxing connotations to you. Some people choose "amen," "shalom," "salaam" or "peace." (Trancendental Meditation teachers call such words "mantras" and contend the most effective are ancient meaningless Sanskrit words, chosen specifically for each individual, which they teach.)

- Repeat the chosen word mentally for about 20 minutes. You don't need to concentrate on it, however. Your mind will wander. When you become aware you're no longer mentally repeating the word, simply return to the repetition.

- At the end of about 20 minutes - you can peek at a clock or watch, but don't use a timer - take a couple of minutes with eyes closed to emerge gradually from the relaxed state. Open your eyes slowly, and return to activity.

- Practice the response twice a day, ideally upon awakening and again before dinner.

It's not any particular session, Benson and other adherents caution, but the long-term practice of such techniques that most effectively reduces the impact of stress.