One of the things I have learned through research and my own experience is that the physical body and emotional well-being are intricately linked. When the body feels pain, stress increases. And stressful situations or painful emotions also increase pain. The good news is that you can rewire the stress response, activating your relaxation response to treat both physical and emotional pain. Just as we can fall into a vicious cycle downward of pain, stress, distress, more pain, etc., we can also activate an upward spiral of relaxation, decreased pain, decreased distress, more relaxation. The key is learning how to activate the relaxation response when you need it, not waiting for it to happen when the situation is right.
Pain, whether physical or emotional, tends to rob us of the feeling of control. We can’t control our bodies, our moods. We’re helpless and stuck and there’s no way of fixing it or getting out. Regaining control is the outcome from learning how to activate your relaxation response. In scientific speech we call it Locus of Control. Those with an external locus of control feel like their situation is in control of them - they’re trapped and helpless. This leads to increased distress and pain, and poorer health overall. Those with an internal locus of control feel like they are in control of themselves. This leads to pro-active coping skills, greater well-being, and better health overall. It’s important to realize that locus of control can be changed. All of the skills covered on this site build internal locus of control. These relaxation skills in particular appear helpful for people with chronic pain in shifting that locus of control from external to internal.
I like to have a large repertoire of skills to choose from. Some exercises are better at certain times than others. For example, when the pain is extreme and I feel overwhelmed, I can’t focus enough to do a guided visualization. But I can focus on diaphragmatic breathing and this helps me calm my body down to the point that I can function again. People are drawn to specific exercises and over time you will find your favorites. I encourage you to try them all out, figuring out what you enjoy and dislike about each one, and perhaps figuring out which exercise fits best for particular circumstances.
Yes, I still experience pain. I have migraines and body aches. But the intensity, duration, and frequency of the pain has decreased significantly as I have learned these skills. I’m not trapped in bed for days on end anymore. I can still function in my daily life, even with the pain. I am not missing out on life, on my work that I cherish, my children that I adore, because of pain. Pain is now just a nuisance, a noisy backseat passenger, rather than the one driving my life. It’s that change in locus of control. I have internal locus of control about my health rather than an external locus of control.
So a little bit about the relaxation response. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is your relaxation response, or like the brake pedal on your car. When the PNS is activated your heart rate decreases, blood pressure goes down, breathing becomes deeper. As your PNS is activated your core body temperature drops, and your hands and feet get warmer. The relaxation response can also be thought of as “pause and plan” in contrast to the stress response of “fight or flight.” Some of the mindfulness exercises listed below may not induce a feeling of relaxation per se but rather a sense of rest in the midst of chaos. This place of rest then becomes an place where you can be pro-active in making changes that will increase your ability to function and engage in life.
Read on about diaphragmatic breathing to discover the quickest way to activate your relaxation response or check out the guided exercises below to practice other relaxation techniques.
Focusing (Coming soon!)