Pain is more than a physical sensation. It’s a complex phenomenon that research has found involves both a sensory dimension (the feeling of pain) and an emotional dimension. The emotional component includes the suffering you feel from the sensation you’re experiencing, such as burning, throbbing, aching, or cramping. It also includes the reactions you have to the suffering, such as anxiety about how the pain will impact your life in the future, feelings of depression, or resentment about any physical limitations you may have.

Taken together, the physical and emotional elements of pain result in stress. In turn, stress increases the burden on your body and mind. Stress causes your muscles to tense, your breath to become more labored, and your blood pressure to increase. You produce epinephrine and cortisol, which are stress hormones that can impact your organs and contribute to inflammation. The resulting wear and tear on your body can fuel both your pain and your feelings associated with pain. It becomes a vicious cycle with no relief in sight.

One way to tackle pain is to reverse your stress reaction through purposeful relaxation. Reducing tension lessens stress and can alleviate the secondary and affective pain generated from your underlying condition.

Paths to Relaxation

There are a number of relaxation techniques that work wonders for reducing stress and helping with pain management. None offer a one-size-fits-all solution, but each confers benefits. Experiment and find one or a combination of methods that form a good fit for your body and mind.

Breathwork: Breath is life, and adopting breath-related relaxation techniques can center your body, mind, and spirit. Breathwork is especially helpful in reducing or alleviating the stress pile-on, where pain becomes exponentially worse because your body and mind are reacting to the stress of being in pain – in addition to reacting to the pain itself.

The first type of exercise to try is foursquare breathing. While seated or lying down, breath in through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale through your mouth for a count of four, and then rest for a count of four. Try doing a set of ten three times each day.

The second type of breathing involves visualization. As you inhale deeply through your nose, imagine that you are drinking in healing energy. As you exhale forcefully through your mouth, imagine that you are expelling pain, stress, and tension.

Mindfulness Meditation: Called vipassana in Theravada Buddhism, mindfulness meditation also involves the breath. While sitting, standing, or lying down, pay attention to your process of breathing. Notice the sensation as the air enters your nostrils, fills your lungs, and leaves your body. When extraneous thoughts distract you, acknowledge the interruption and go back to noticing your breath. When sensations of pain arise, notice the sensation but refrain from reacting to it. The idea is to observe what’s going on with your mind and body while letting the thoughts and sensations rise and fall away without becoming attached to them. Try meditating for 20 minutes twice each day.

Guided Imagery: The premise of guided imagery is to move your focus from the negative to the positive. Using a script or recording, or with the help of a practitioner, imagine that you are in a serene location. Engage every one of your senses, incorporating colors, sounds, tastes, scents, and textures into your experience. Going on this inner journey for 10 minutes twice each day can help you relax, and can lay the groundwork for a mental place to escape when you are experiencing pain.

Visualization: Visualization is similar to guided imagery, but is specific to the pain you’re experiencing. If you have a burning pain, for example, you might imagine pouring a bucket of ice water over it to cool it down. Or, you may think of a searing pain as the sun, and then envision the sun setting and the pain going away. You could place a throbbing pain in a cabinet and shut the door, or envision shining a healing blue light on an aching pain. Sticking with a specific visualization increases its effectiveness because it becomes your go-to response when you experience pain.

Progressive Relaxation: Done alone or in conjunction with breathwork or guided imagery, progressive relaxation involves tensing and relaxing groups of muscles. For example, you can start by flexing your feet and feeling the tension in your shin. Then, completely relax your feet. Next, point your toes and feel the tension in your calves. Again, completely relax your feet. Go all of the way up your body until you raise your eyebrows and then relax them, and then pull your eyebrows down into a frown, and then relax them. Doing this twice each day can help release the stress-related tension that builds up in your muscles.

Autogenic Training: Utilizing six exercises that teach your body to obey your verbal instructions, autogenic training incorporates visualization and verbal commands. After learning an exercise, you practice it a few times each day. It can take up to six months to become proficient in all exercises, but once mastered, you can use autogenic training to relax your body, control your breathing, and lower your blood pressure and heart rate.

Biofeedback: Biofeedback is similar to autogenic training in that it teaches you to relax your body and voluntarily control systems (like heart rate and blood pressure) that are typically automatic. Electrodes are attached to your skin and to a monitoring device, and lights and sounds convey information about your body’s responses to stress. You can see and hear the changes as you use techniques like breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation to reduce or eliminate the stress reaction. Over time, you no longer need the electrodes, and can control your body’s reactions on your own.

Relaxation techniques are an integral part of pain management, whether used alone or in conjunction with other strategies. Expending the effort to master one or more techniques is a good investment, as doing so can prevent a secondary stress reaction, and can lessen or alleviate your primary source of pain.

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