Chronic pain is complex. Research over the past 25 years has shown that pain is influenced by emotional and social factors. These need to be addressed along with the physical causes of pain. Chronic stress is one factor that contributes to chronic pain. The good news is that you can get natural pain relief by making relaxation exercises a part of your pain-management plan.
The Body’s Response to Stress
To understand how natural pain relief works, it’s important to understand how stress affects your body. Pain and stress have a similar effect on the body: your heart rate and blood pressure rise, breathing becomes fast and shallow, and your muscles tighten.
You can actually feel your body’s response when you’re faced with a sudden, stressful event, such as fearing that a car is about to hit you. The car misses you and, in time, your system returns to normal. You relax.
With chronic stress, such as worrying about health or finances, feeling stuck in a bad job or marriage, or fearing that something bad will happen, the nervous system keeps the body on alert. This takes a big toll on your body. Levels of stress hormones increase, and muscles remain in a nearly constant state of tension.
Chronic stress hurts.
Here’s just one example: Studies that measure site-specific muscle tension in patients with chronic back pain have shown that simply thinking or talking about a stressful event dramatically increases tension in back muscles.
Relaxation Techniques for Natural Pain Relief
Relaxation exercises calm your mind, reduce stress hormones in your blood, relax your muscles, and elevate your sense of well-being. Using them regularly can lead to long-term changes in your body to counteract the harmful effects of stress.
Don’t get stressed trying to pick the “right” relaxation technique for natural pain relief. Choose whatever relaxes you: music, prayer, gardening, going for a walk, talking with a friend on the phone. Here are some other techniques you might try:
- Foursquare breathing. Breathe deeply, so that your abdomen expands and contracts like a balloon with each breath. Inhale to a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale to a count of four, then hold to a count of four. Repeat for ten cycles.
Guided imagery. Breathe slowly and deeply. For example, imagine a tranquil scene in which you feel comfortable, safe, and relaxed. Include colors, sounds, smells, and your feelings. Do five to ten minutes each day.
Self-talk. Change how you think about your pain and yourself. For example, change “Pain prevents me from keeping house the way I used to — I’m a failure” to “No one will die if the house isn’t perfect. I can get a lot done by breaking down tasks into baby steps.”
Hypnosis. Hypnotherapists can induce hypnosis and implant suggestions, such as, “You’re going to sleep soundly tonight.” Audiotape the session so that you can repeat it at home.
Mindfulness meditation. Sit or lie quietly and notice your breathing without controlling it. If pain or thoughts interfere, simply notice them without trying to push them away. Think of them as a cloud passing over; then return to observing your breath. Do this for about 20 minutes.