Can true relaxation help manage pain?
When was the last time you felt relaxed?
No, I mean truly, wholly relaxed.
When your body seems to be softening into cloud-like support.
When your breath is tranquil like a slow, steady stream.
When there is an unusual yet peaceful stillness in your mind.
When your usual aches and pain are no more.
The sad fact is, most of us don't remember that moment. Even when we sleep, when we think we are getting true relaxation, our body and mind still carry the tension through the next 7-9 hours.
The way that our lives are structured nowadays leaves us no room to dial into our relaxation response (the technical term of it is the parasympathetic response), the part of our autonomic nervous system that regulates our heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, digestion, muscle tenacity, hormone pathways, and more at a healthy homeostasis (aka baseline and optimal levels).
More and more, we are entrapped in the stress (sympathetic) response, keeping our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels elevated. Moreover, it keeps our muscles in a chronically tense state (to prepare to fight or flee), and inhibits our digestive and reproductive organs (who cares about food and sex when we're trying to survive the tiger?).
Even when we don't consciously register our stress, the body still responds to this threat with the physiological cascades of the stress response. Our body and muscles, therefore, become increasingly tighter and tenser through the years as a result of our body's way of responding to the threats of our environment.
Tight muscles mean two things: Weak muscles and pain. The pain can be from the fatigue of the muscles being overly tensed and contracted, or from the tight muscles pulling on nearby joints and bones, causing misalignment and/or inflammation.
Today, the value of relaxation is undermined. We unfortunately live in a society that believes in setting up more complicated systems to resolve problems.
However, true relaxation is more therapeutic than a soak in the bathtub in epsom salt. Several studies are now showing the benefits of conscious muscle relaxation (in this meta study, the technique is called "Progressive Muscle Relaxation") for reducing many pain disorders, anxiety, and insomnia. In addition to reducing pain, conscious relaxation has also been shown to balance immune system function as well as improve overall mood.
Another study shows that just after a 6-week intervention of relaxation "training" for patients with pain from ulcerative colitis, the experimental group reported significantly reduced pain levels, distress, and medication required immediately after AND 6 weeks post-intervention compared to the control group who received no relaxation training.
Lastly, conscious muscle relaxation can also improve symptoms of osteoarthritis in the elderly population. The treatment group at week 12 report significantly reduced pain and mobility difficulties compared to the control group.
I can easily pull up more literature that showcases the underestimated power of true relaxation, but I think you get the point by now.
I know, you may still have hesitations: How can simply relaxing and doing nothing help with my pain at all?
I get this question all the time. I have one simple answer for you, albeit it is multilayered from the physical to the subconscious levels, but I will give you this: By simply resolving those chronically tight muscles, you are helping your body return to baseline (aka homeostasis). At baseline, the body does what it does best: repair, maintain, and heal.
(If you want the other multilayered answer for that question, I'm happy to have a chit-chat about it with you!)
The bottom line is: Your body IS built to repair itself by rebuilding things and killing off threatening things, and this isn't any woo-woo thing, it's Biology 101 (and trust me, because I have a Bachelors of Science in Biology). The rate at which your body repairs, well, that is individually different depending on body types, lifestyle, emotional/mental health, environment, how much time for relaxation you are giving yourself, and more.
So, where to start?
I invite you to grab a chair and put your legs up on the chair as you lie down in the quietest, coziest corner in your house. Get extra luxurious by adding a pillow under your head, a blanket over your body, and an eye pillow over your eyes. Then hit play on one of these guided relaxation recordings that I've made for you. Spinal Release Yoga is also a wonderful practice of releasing chronically-held deep spinal tension so that you can truly move with more freedom in your body from the inside out.
If you’re feeling like you need a true vacation — not the kind where you’re trying to see 10 things in a day, but one where you really are doing nothing except taking care of yourself — then I invite you to consider my upcoming yoga retreat with my colleague and yoga therapist Lauren Ziegler at Wilbur Hot Springs on October 4-6, 2019. It will truly be a weekend of rejuvenation, with daily restorative yoga, soaking in hot mineral water from the source, enjoying nourishing meals, and plenty of downtime to take care of yourself in whatever shape or form that looks like for you.
Do you have other ways you melt into true relaxation? How often do you give yourself these precious moments? I'd love to hear from you, comment below to let me know.
Keep calm and relax on!