First off, the media’s portrayal of what is self-care is VERY different from what mental health care professionals think of as self-care. Self-care in the media is bubble baths and spa days and bottomless brunches. I am not against any of this! In fact it all sounds quite fabulous. Counsellors and therapists such as myself think of self-care more in terms of activities of daily living (ADLs) like getting showered and dress and eating meals, etc. And then there is this weird grey area of overlap. For example, I see meditation as a form of self-care. It’s not an ADL, and the media would categorize it as self-care, and yet it can be extremely beneficial for mental and physical health. So I see things like that really as acts of health care.
Here are some activities that I see as health care (that are sometimes categorized as self-care):
meditation and mindfulness – contacting the present moment to be here-and-now
self-compassion – taking a moment to be kind to yourself through touch or words
massage therapy – having a registered massage therapist do deeper work (than just purely going to the “spa”)
acupuncture – it has been around around for thousands of years and sessions are usually between 20-45 minutes
swimming and other forms of exercise – water therapy, strength, cardio
baths – more water therapy!
For all of these, research actually supports that they are important for health and mental health. Mindfulness and self-compassion can release tension in the body, make us feel calm and centred and present. Massages and acupuncture can reduce physical sensations of pain and also create relaxation in the body. Exercise reduces pain and increases strength. Baths, swimming and in general water therapy is supported for pain because of its strength, flexibility, heat and relaxation effects (depending on what you’re doing).
Thinking in terms of how these things will benefit my health, as opposed to just being things to enjoy (I mean, these are all things I do also enjoy) makes me more motivated to do them. It’s funny, because the idea for this topic came to me as I’m having a massage later today (I write these about a week before they’re posted). Getting a massage purely for pleasure hasn’t occurred to me in the longest time. Instead I always consider my massage therapist part of my healthcare team. I’m just like, hey, it’s time to take care of those muscles, especially because I have fibromyalgia and I’ve been neglecting them recently! And honestly, this type of health care is also self-care. I think we can get pulled into all these labels, rather than just going with what we need, regardless of whether it’s real self-care or media self-care or health care or anything else. What will make your mind, body and spirit feel better today? Do that, and keep making the most of it!
This is part 2 of my 4-part series on my favourite coping skills for chronic pain. These are all things that I use and find helpful. Additionally, they all have scientific evidence supporting them as being helpful. This week we’re going to talk about relaxation: how it can be beneficial and some ideas for incorporating relaxation into our daily lives.
Let’s start with what the research says is helpful about incorporating relaxation into our “treatment” for chronic pain. Relaxation enhances our ability to tolerate pain. But how does it do this? First, it increases our brain’s ability to respond to endorphins, which are our body’s natural pain relievers. Second, it reduces inflammation, which is often a cause of pain. Third, it allows our muscles to relax, and tense muscles tend to cause more painful sensations than relaxed muscles. Fourth, it reduces hypervigilance and desensitizes our central pain pathways, meaning that it helps to decrease our sensitivity to painful sensations. Fifth, it improves our mood and makes us less emotionally reactive to our pain, and since we know the mind-body connection is a thing, this makes sense. I also want to point out that the research states that mindfulness skills are more effective than relaxation skills. However, I think having both is important, and the research seems to support that as well.
So, let’s talk about a few different relaxation skills we can access, learn, and some other ones that I use that aren’t necessarily research based but are helpful for me.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: in this practice we tense each muscle group, one at a time, and then release the tension allowing for relaxation. I love this one and feel very relaxed afterwards. There’s been a lot of research on it, and it’s one we can do on our own as there are a ton of guided versions. Here’s a guided version I made from my YouTube channel.
Guided imagery is another practice we can do on our own. I personally like “safe place” imagery, which I haven’t made for my YouTube channel yet but any guided imagery that uses peaceful, soothing or symbolically therapeutic mental images has evidence that it enhances relaxation from physical and emotional pain.
Yoga is another practice that I normally associate with mindfulness, though I will admit that I find it relaxing as well. Yoga emphasizes a number of processes including acceptance, attention, mediation and relaxation, which is likely why many people find it effective. Here’s an interview I did with MS Warrior and Yoga Instructor, Clarissa, on the podcast.
Hypnosis in an intervention that I haven’t tried, however there is growing research that it shows promise as being helpful for chronic pain. It alters our perception and cognitive patterns that occur in chronic pain syndromes through the use of relaxation. Here’s an interview I did with physical therapist, Sam, who uses hypnosis with his patients.
Biofeedback is another intervention I haven’t tried but has a lot of research support it’s use and was discussed at the World Pain Summit I attended last fall. It increases our physical awareness and induces relaxation through the use of markers of the stress response. I definitely think it’s worth looking into.
Pick any activity you find relaxing! Okay so this doesn’t have specific scientific evidence but if it induces relaxation then it can’t be bad. For me, that is taking a bubble bath (or epsom salt bath) and reading a book. I find it incredibly relaxing and definitely helpful for me.
As a therapist, I’m always surprised how many of my clients don’t have a lot of relaxation skills, which makes me wonder how many people actually actively use relaxation skills in general. So, I hope this gives you some helpful options, and I encourage you to try to make some time each day to actively do something relaxing. Keep making the most of it!
Long title, I know. But nonetheless I thought I’d share some of my tips with you, plus a few other evidence-based ones I found online as I’m trying to get through this. I’m writing this exactly one week before it will be published so fingers crossed that it’s over by the time you’re reading it, but if not, then I’ll just have to accept it as it is. My flare is likely caused by a few things. First, I recently moved and moving is stressful (even a relatively easy move like I had) and stress can cause a flare. Second, I moved from a dry climate in the interior of British Columbia to the wet, lower mainland of BC. I always notice my symptoms, especially pain gets worse when it rains… but then I knowingly moved to a rainy climate (*face palm*). All jokes aside, my symptoms are increased pain, increased fatigue, really bad jaw pain, my left foot is super veiny and sore (my calf is fine though so unlikely anything super serious). How the heck can I manage all of this?
Acceptance. Yes, I know some of you are rolling your eyes or saying that this is ridiculous or unlikely to work. But I find it does. I accept that my pain is here, while knowing that the intensity changes hour by hour, sometimes even minute by minute, and I know that when my flare is over I’ll go back to baseline. Acceptance is helpful. I’ve been doing body scans and other mindfulness activities to help with the acceptance, but honestly just acknowledging my experience without getting wrapped up in it is helpful. Check out this acceptance practice.
Exercise, Movement and Stretching. If you read this blog regularly you know that I like to exercise. And I still pace myself by trying to stay consistent with what I do. I definitely increase my stretching during flares. Particularly I focus on the areas that seem to hurt or need it the most. For example, my jaw is the worst today as I write this, and I’ve made sure to do jaw stretches throughout the day. For more on jaw pain specifically, check out this podcast episode with Dr. Shirazi.
Warm Baths. I LOVE my baths. I literally take a bath 4-5x a week in the winter months. And with the rain, I’m definitely needing them. They help relax my muscles, keep me warm, and are very relaxing. Trust me when I say I could never (and would never) live in an apartment without a bathtub. Knowing what is vital to your self-care is essential to dealing with a flare. Check out this podcast episode on it.
Dressing Warmly and in Layers. Vancouver, if you’ve never been, is a city where everyone dresses in layers. It will likely rain at some point during the day, though you never know exactly when. It could also start off cool and warm up, or vice versa. So I’ve been making sure to put on 3 layers when I go out, and have a pair of mittens on me. I need to remember a hat and/or an umbrella, but I’m working on it!
Hydration. I tend to drink a lot of water. Admittedly more when I’m working. Staying on top of my water intake is so important to managing my flares and really my health! I’m trying to drink 5 full glasses of water a day minimum. I basically keep a glass of water next to me all day and every time it’s empty, I refill it. Listen to my podcast conversation with Beau Berman about gut health and how important drinking water is to him.
Omega-3’s and Vitamin D. I typically try to get these from the foods I eat. Lots of fish mostly (rich in both), as well as mushrooms, spinach, avocado and tofu and really a variety of others foods are rich in vitamin D. These are really important for reducing inflammation naturally and honestly are just really good for you! Also, Vitamin D is a way to combat with the “winter blues” (which I often get) and the more severe, Seasonal Affective Disorder.
So those are the 6 things that I am doing, but what are the 5 things that I’m not but probably should be?
Acupuncture. This is actually an evidence-based and recommended treatment for chronic pain. I’ve had it in the past and I’m hoping to start back up with bi-monthly sessions next month. Listen to the podcast episode on recommended treatments for chronic pain for more info.
Massage. I miss getting massages. It’s been nearly a year since I had one, and this is also a service I used to get bi-monthly. I’ll likely also start these back up soon as well. Clearly I need to. The benefits of massage can be heard in the podcast episode with Danielle Potvin.
NSAIDs. I’m not a fan of these drugs to be honest. They can cause stomach problems when on them long term. I’ve drastically cut back on them and only take them to supplement the more natural medications I take (i.e., CBD). If you’re aware of the risks and find them helpful then this can be a helpful solution.
Natural supplements. The only natural supplement I currently take is magnesium bis-glycinate which is a muscle relaxant (and I mainly use it when I’m menstruating). Other recommended supplements are fish oil, ginger (which I sometimes have in food and/or tea), turmeric (which I sometimes have in tea), and gingko. These are definitely worth checking out to use in addition to some of the other suggestions.
Limit Stress. Oh I can’t wait until I’m passed the stress of the move and starting up new counselling practices. The truth is there is always some kind of stress in our lives and it really comes down to how we manage stress. I typically do a good job with mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and relaxation practices. So this might just be a reminder to do a bit more of that. And also, if you are able to avoid stress then that’s a good plan (I do not plan on moving again for quite some time!).
So that’s it! 11 ways in total to manage a flare. Keep making the most of it everyone!