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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Welcome to the fourth part of my 4-part series on coping skills for chronic pain! Of course, there are way more than these ones out there. The reasons I’ve been focusing on these is because I have personally used them, and there is a ton of research supporting them. This week we’re talking about connection. By connection, I mean social connection – spending time with others. I know this is a tough one for many warriors for a variety of reasons. Many of you may not have a good support network, you may have pulled away from friends or had friends pull away from you because of your pain. You may not be close with your family or they may not understand. This happens to a lot of people with chronic pain and illness. It is important for us to find ways to connect with others, so let’s talk about why that is.
There is a surprising amount of research in this area. I did a search on Google Scholar and got a lot of results. One area the research has focused on is the actual neural pathways in our brains and there seems to be a connected between physical pain and social pain. What I take from this is that when we experience emotional pain – such as through the loss of social connections – our physical pain gets worse. I’ve touched in previous posts about the connections between physical and emotional pain (mind-body) and how that works. You can also listen to this podcast episode. Other research has found that people with chronic pain tend to perceive others as being hostile toward them. Because it’s perception it’s hard to determine if the others are actually being hostile, but this could be another reason for the increased physical pain when there is “social” pain.
Okay so if that explains the connection between our minds and bodies in general, what are some of the things social connection does for us that are helpful?
Improves our self-esteem and self-confident
Increases our sense of control and empowerment
Improves our emotional wellbeing.
Decreases anxiety and improve mood
Changes our pain perception
Improves coping skills
How that we’ve settled what it does for us, what are some of the actions we can take? How do I get more socially connected when I have pain and illness and all the struggles that come with it?
Cognitive reframing, emotional expression, problem-solving, and distancing oneself from pain – this is literally what I work with clients on in therapy, and there are studies that show it increases satisfaction with your support systems, whether those are friends, family or your healthcare team.
Accessing pain resources – we’ve all heard the phrase, “knowledge is power” and even by just reading this blog, you may feel more socially connected with others, like myself, who experience pain.
Online support groups – even if you can’t find an in-person support group, having an online community is often very helpful for people. I’ve done a post on the pros and cons of these, but in general, if this is the only way you can socially connect with others, it can be enough.
Volunteering – if you are physically capable of doing any kind of volunteer work, I highly recommend it. There has been so much research showing that volunteering is good for all humans as it actually increases our happiness because we are helping others. And of course, we are interacting with others too!
Lovingkindness Meditation – the idea of this meditation is that we send out kindness to others, as well as ourselves. The others include people we care about, neutral people, people we don’t like, and all of humanity. Some of the benefits include stress reduction, being more compassionate, and better perspective-taking. You can find a version of this here.
I hope this helps you on your journey to be more socially connected and that it helps with your pain tolerance. Keep making the most of it everyone!