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!
I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago and the guest was talking about the physiology of our fight-flight-freeze response and how it can specifically relate to certain chronic illness. The guest used the following examples: lupus as being the fight response, and CFS/ME as being the freeze response. I had never thought of it this way and it made me interested in this topic. (The podcast is called Therapy Chat if anyone is interested but I can’t remember the specific episode number, sorry!). Fight-flight-freeze is also known as the stress response, which is a product of evolution that kept our species alive for a long time, however, if you ask many people with chronic illnesses (especially autoimmune diseases) you’ll have a lot of people tell you about chronic stress, trauma history, and attachment issues, all of which can dysregulate our stress response. Usually this occurs in childhood, and I can specifically remember 5 years where I had chronic stress (at school only, due to a traumatic friendship).
I’m going to try to explain the stress response in the easiest, most non-technical way possible (because honestly my eyes glaze over when I have to read about brain anatomy, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in that). So there are a few different parts of our autonomic nervous system, most notably the sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight) and our parasympathetic nervous system (freeze). There is also our vagus nerve which is really important in understanding the nervous system but I’ll leave polyvagal theory for another time. Sympathetic activates us to either fight or run away in order to survive, whereas the parasympathetic suppresses everything in order to keep our bodies alive when we can’t fight or flight. The problem is that when our stress response is chronically activated, it can impair our physical and mental health. I want to put a caveat here for the rest of this post, correlation does not mean causation, however, most theories do point to chronic stress as being causation (at least partially – biopsychosocial approach) for a lot of illnesses.
I think it’s also important to talk about stress-related disorders, because they tend to also be diagnosed in people with autoimmune diseases. Examples include acute stress disorders (same symptoms as PTSD but only lasting between 3-30 days), posttraumatic stress disorder (which most people seem to have a basic understanding of), and adjustment disorders (occurs during major life changes). Attachment disorders can also contribute. One study I looked at found that people with a stress-related disorder were more likely to not only develop an autoimmune disease, but to actually be diagnosed with multiple ones, and had a higher rate of them if they were younger when having the stress-related disorder.
Let’s talk about chronic stress – when our stress response is activated for a long period of time (i.e., daily stress as opposed to one major stressor) – because a lot of research has been done in this area. Here is a bunch of things that chronic stress can do:
contribute to high blood pressure
contribute to anxiety, depression, OCD, anorexia nervosa, and substance use disorder (and withdrawal)
contribute to obesity (increase appetite, leading to weight gain)
suppress or dysregulate immune function (leading to inflammatory disorders and hyperactive immune systems such as in RA and lupus)
suppress the reproductive system
suppress growth in children (lots of studies of children in orphanages)
switch off disease-fighting white blood cells, increasing risk of cancer
worsen symptoms in lupus patients
contributes to malnutrition
contributes to poorly controlled diabetes
contributes to hyperthyroidism
So that’s a lot. I mentioned ME/CFS as the beginning of this post as well, which is associated with the physiological state of freeze, as examined by metabolic changes. Some research indicated that people with ME/CFS are “wired,” meaning a combination of both the fight/flight and freeze responses, leading them to feel wired and tired at once. I hope this gives you some understanding of what is going on with you if you have any of the illnesses mentioned in this post. Understanding is one thing, but what can we do to help ourselves, especially if we are in a chronic stress response? While there is no right answer, there are definitely things we can try (and a bunch have worked for me!)
Deep breathing (into the diaphragm) – for many people this lowers stress (it sometimes increases anxiety for me, so I personally find it more effective to do mindful breathing)
visualizations and guided imagery – try this one out.
Prayer – this is a mindful activity that many people find helpful
Yoga and Tai Chi – mindful movement can be very grounding – listen to this podcast episode about it.
Walking (and other forms of exercise) – for many people this lowers the stress response, for some people it can increase it due to heart rate increases
Journaling – you have to like to write/journal for this one but it can be helpful to get your thoughts out of your head
Biofeedback – this is a technique in which you can learn to control some of your bodily functions (i.e., heart rate)