My Top 5 Relaxation Tips for Stress (and chronic pain)

So many of us struggle to relax. To actually induce feelings of relaxation in our bodies and minds (which typically go together). And yet relaxation has been found to be very helpful for chronic pain. When the nervous system is dysregulated, the immune system goes into overdrive, causing inflammation, which causes pain, which then further dysregulates the nervous system. While there are many ways to break this cycle, relaxation is one.

Social connection can help with relaxation.

Relaxation is different from mindfulness. While many people do feel relaxed after meditation or some other mindfulness practice, the goal with mindfulness is not feel present and aware (relaxation is a common byproduct). The goal of relaxation practices is literally to relax. And so, mindfulness can be done pretty much anywhere, whereas relaxation needs to be done somewhere safe and comfortable. All that said, from my experience with chronic pain, here are my top 5 relaxation tips:

  1. Deep breathing – sending the breath into the belly activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) moving us out of the sympathetic (fight or flight response). Closely related is sending the breath to areas of the body that need help relaxing. This is quick, easy and technically overlaps with mindfulness so it can be done in more places than some of the other suggestions. Check it out.
  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation – PMR is done when we tense and then relax different muscle groups in our body. I have been practicing PMR for years (former therapist taught it to me) and have always found it helps to relax me and often decreases pain. Check it out.
  3. Yoga Nidra – newest one on my list as I’ve only more recently started practicing it. It sends you into a deep meditative state that is extremely relaxing. There is some evidence that the use of a sankalpa (resolve) can also help to promote healing. Check it out.
  4. Exercise – believe it or not but exercise often helps with our emotions and can help us feel more relaxed. It can be more intense to less intense depending on what you need in that moment. I’ve found when I’m anxious, for example, going for a walk can ease a lot of it.
  5. Social connection – in person is better, though any type of connection with a friend, partner, family member, etc. – especially one that is regulated – can help us move back into regulation because our nervous systems like to co-regulate with each other. Sometimes when I hang out with certain people, even if I was tense or stressed or anxious before, I feel calm and chill during and after the hangout.

There are many more ways to get ourselves into more of a relaxed state. These are just some of my personal faves. I hope that helps you to keep making the most of it!

How to Get in More Relaxation as a Spoonie

I’ll admit I’m having a busy summer in that there are a lot of things that I want to do and it’s pulling my time away from a lot of blog writing. Also I do a lot of blog writing. Also I’m not overly impressed with wordpress right now while acknowledging that I have a lot of followers on here, so I was figuring out how to get you all of this relevant and hopefully helpful information in the easiest way possible. This is how I’ve decided to go about it (for the summer at least). Honestly, it’s helping me relax.

Relaxation is actually extremely important when you have a chronic health condition. Tension can lead to more physical pain, increased gastrointestinal issues, and other symptoms of our autoimmune (or any other) conditions. So, I think it’s really important to explore some relaxation ideas. Follow the link for more:

Keep making the most of it!

Ways to Recognize Anxiety When You Have Chronic Pain

I wrote a blog post for my therapy blog on recognizing the physical symptoms of anxiety. The information is also relevant for recognizing the physical symptoms when you have chronic pain or illness because some of these issues are overlapping, which makes it hard for us to figure out if it’s our illness or anxiety, and then what to do about it. Also, remember the mind and body are deeply connected, which means anxiety = more pain/illness symptoms and more pain/illness symptoms = more anxiety. Vicious cycle. Check out the post:

https://www.kelseylharriscounselling.com/post/how-to-recognize-the-physical-symptoms-of-anxiety

If the smokey image is anxiety, this is me trying to hide from it.

Video: What Happens When You Push Away Your Pain…

So, the question is, do you want to hold that beach ball under the water, or would you rather be able to deal with it effectively in the moment? This is a question we often need to ask ourselves when we deal with painful emotions and sensations.

As always, I hope this helps you to keep making the most of it!

Video: Your Mind Thinks It’s a Mind-Reading Machine

We tend to believe everything our minds tell us. This is completely natural. However, our minds are not actually great mind readers. Watch the video for more on that.

As always, keep making the most of it!

3 Ways to Reduce Rumination, Worry, and Attachment to Self Stories

Have you ever found yourself caught up in thoughts about the past? What life was like before your chronic illness/pain? Ruminating over and over about that old life… What about thoughts about the future? Worrying about what will happen to you and how your health will affect you, maybe even getting worse? Perhaps you are also really fused with the idea that you are just a sick person now and that is all your life will be. These are all common thought processes when you have a chronic illness or chronic pain. I’ve certainly dealt with these before. The problem with this dominance of the conceptualized past or future, or the conceptualized self, is that it often takes us away from living right now. It makes life worse. It increases suffering.

Rumination and worry are like the fog. Can you come back to the present?

I remember having the thought that I don’t want to suffer any longer. This was in the fall of 2016. My very recent ex blamed me for all the things that were wrong in the relationship because of WHO I was. What I quickly came to realize was that I was ruminating and worrying and fused with having an autoimmune disease. We didn’t break up because of who I was (trust me there were a lot of other issues that didn’t stem from me at all). However, the dominance of my thought processes wasn’t helping me at all. It was taking me away from the life I wanted to live and away from the person I wanted to be.

The Conceptualized Past & Future
I don’t think that being able to reflect on our pasts or contemplate our futures is inherently problematic. Our brains have evolved to be able to do this. Initially to keep us safe and alive. We just don’t run into as many instances of life-and-death situations anymore. When we excessively focus on the past, or ruminate, we tend to feel overwhelmed and depressed. When we excessively focus on the future, or worry, we tend to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Both anxiety and sadness can increase pain and set of flares for those of us with autoimmune disease, which in turn tends to lead to more sadness and/or anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.

The Conceptualized Self
We all have stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Like who we are, where we came from, and why we act the ways we do, essentially why we are the way we are right now. Often being sick or in pain is a large part of this story. The problem with these stories is that while they do contains some objective facts, they are also chalk full of our own subjective interpretations. When we are really fused with these stories about ourselves, we forget that life is constantly changing, most of it is not predictable, and we can also create change for ourselves. And yep, I know this is really hard to grasp when you have a chronic illness.

Why we need to contact the present moment
We we are stuck in the past or future, and when we dwell on our stories about ourselves, we are definitely not experiencing the here-and-now. The benefits of being present are plentiful, including the ability to gain more self-knowledge and self-awareness, enjoying our experiences more, feeling less pain (emotional and physical), and being more flexible in our interpretations of ourselves and of life. I meditate daily because it helps me become more present (and it took me so long to get into a daily routine). I also notice myself being able to come back to the present much faster throughout the day, even when I notice physical pain.

How do we counteract rumination, worry, and attachment to our self stories?

  • Mindfulness – it can be meditation, but really mindfulness means contacting the present moment, being here-and-now. So it can also be yoga, or mindful walking or eating. It can be fully engaging in an activity. It can be noticing your thoughts/feelings/sensations and then coming back to the present by noticing your feet on the floor. It can be many, many things, but it is always: being curious, open and nonjudgmental about your present moment experiencing. Check this out.
  • Noticing Self – the idea that there is a part of us that can step back and notice. Like the sky and the weather. The sky always has room for the weather. Even when the weather is thunderstorms and hurricanes, the sky is not bothered by it because eventually the weather changes. We can use this same part of ourselves, to just step back and watch our experiences without being swept away. It’s a safe place that just notices. This is particularly helpful for attachment to our conceptualized self.
    Check this out.
  • Creating Distance Between Ourselves and Our Thoughts – we can’t stop our minds from thinking, but we can notice when our thoughts are unhelpful and learn to let them pass like leaves on a stream. The more distance we can create, the more psychological flexibility we can have in order to return to the present. Check this out.

I know that was a lot of information! I’m a big believer in seeking help from a mental health professional in your area if you are really struggling with your mental health. Many people with chronic illness, chronic pain, TBI, etc. find it hard to cope on their own. One of the best things I ever did was go to therapy. I learned a lot of skills to help me cope and felt I had nonjudgmental support as I continued down this path we call life. And on that note, keep making the most of it!

Video: Daily Mindfulness – Inner Child Imagery

This type of practice can be deep and quite healing when you have chronic pain and illness. I do highly recommend you only do this if you have strong grounding skills and preferably if you’ve done this type of practice before and/or are able to debrief this with a licensed mental health professional in your area. For other mindfulness practices, check out my YouTube channel.

Keep making the most of it.

How to Find Inspiration in Poetry: The Peace of the Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
-William Berry

I think this is an absolutely beautiful poem for many reasons. Two main thoughts came to mind when I first heard it as I was attending a Compassion in Therapy summit in April (yes, I know I do a lot of these types of summits, they’re terrific). The first, is that it does remind me of self-compassion practices, and second, that nature has ultimate healing powers. While I’ve blogged about these topics before, I want to write about them in the context of this poem, as a way for me (and you) to remember why they are so important, especially if you have a chronic illness.

Costa Rica, 2019

Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is comprised of 3 elements: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. In the poem, Berry describes mindfulness of his thoughts in the first part, and then just being present with full experiencing in the second part. “I come into the presence of still water” and “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” These are very mindful phrases and experiences. Then there is the phrase, “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I see this as relating to common humanity as it suggests that all human “tax their lives” with these thoughts and feelings – in contrast to wild things, which (as far as we know) don’t have the cognitive abilities to have these thoughts that can consume us. Thinking is part of being human. What I think represents self-kindness in this poem is that (a) Berry doesn’t judge himself for having these thoughts, and (b) he makes the decision to take care of himself in the moment and give himself what he needs – a reprieve into nature. Now, I’m personally left to wonder, what can I do today that is self-compassionate? Maybe lay a kind hand on my chest, maybe imagining breathing in compassion for myself and out compassion for others, or maybe it is literally going outside into nature. What do you need?

Nature

Ecotherapy and forest bathing are totally a thing. I actually talked to a client of mine about this recently because they mentioned that they feel good in the forest, literally touching the trees. Me too. So much research supports being in nature. I recently listened to a podcast that suggested even just eating outside is good for us (which I immediately told my parents about because we ate el fresco all summer long when I was growing up). Near my apartment, there is an inlet with beautiful hiking trails along it and tons of big, beautiful trees that are ever-so-present in British Columbia. The air is so refreshing, especially if it’s recently rained. Everything about this trail (and really a lot of trails in this province) makes me feel good. Both physically and mentally. I had the same experience in Costa Rica. My friend and I would touch the trees and vines, really connecting with the beauty and nature, and all of the healing properties of it. When’s the last time you spent time outside? Is there a park near you that you can go to? Can you eat outside on your patio or deck?

Sometimes we can find inspiration to improve the quality of our lives (with these easy and gentle practices) in the most interesting places, like The Peace of the Wild Things. I hope this inspires you to keep making the most of it!

Video: Ways to Understand Anger

This is a metaphor I often use when explaining anger. It has a specific purpose and function for us, but there is almost always something beneath anger. I hope this piece of psychoeducation helps you to understand yourself better. Remember, the content on this blog does not replace seeking help from a licensed mental or other healthcare professional in your area.

For a meditation on working with anger, click this link.

Keep making the most of it!

How I Accommodate My Illness & Pain

There is a Taoist parable that tells of an old man who fell into a river that swept him toward a dangerous waterfall. There were people watching who feared for the old man’s life. By some miracle, the old man came out of the water at the bottom of the falls completely unharmed. The onlookers asked him how he managed to survive, and he replied, “I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived.”

I think I can accommodate myself to the river of life.

If the old man had struggled against the water, he may not have survived the fall. At least that’s how he sees it and is what the parable is suggesting. This is non-contention. I came across the parable when I was… well if you read this blog regularly then you can probably guess it… meditating. I was doing a guided meditation and at the end, the meditation teacher told this parable. It really spoke to me because I have heard this idea spoken in many different ways already, and it’s something I have been practicing for sometime. I notice that in my day-to-day life, when I am swept up by my pain or symptoms of my illness or thoughts about my pain or emotions such as anxiety that arise, when I struggle with these things, it just makes the day worse. It makes the pain (physical and emotional worse) and I feel less resilient. When I do the opposite – accommodate – then my days are pretty good. Thankfully I’ve gotten good at accommodating.

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While I’m sure some of you are also good at accommodating, there are probably many of you who are not. It takes a lot of work and practice to be able to do this. It’s way more natural for our minds to struggle because our minds think that it’s the best way to survive – I mean, thousands of years of evolution have told them this. Yet in modern times, the struggle often ends up being less helpful (but try telling that to the primitive part of your brain). I find that meditating is helpful for accommodation but I totally get that it’s not for everyone. I also find similar mindful practices like body scans, observing-breathing into-making room for-and allowing my feelings to also be helpful. And engaging in those values-based behaviours that I love. That doesn’t mean I push through my inner experiences. There is a delicate balance between pacing and going to my edge. And on days that I go to far and do too much, I offer myself some compassion because it is hard to be human, and it is hard to be a human with a chronic condition.

So, here’s what I suggest:

  • try out some mindfulness practices, like the ones found on my YouTube channel
  • incorporate more self-compassion into your life: kind words, soothing touching, remembering that it is human to have pain
  • engage in values-based activities that allow you to pace and don’t take you past your edge
  • seek mental health (and physical health) help from a licensed professional as often as needed.

As always, keep making the most of it!