The Core Essentials to Physical Health and Well Being
Move your Mind: Part A: Meditate
Relaxation is the opposite of the body’s response to stress – the counter for the “fight or flight” response. When a relaxation response occurs your muscles feel loose or limp, or warm and heavy, or at times, light and airy. There is a sensation of release, letting go, feeling supported, or settling comfortably.
People often confuse feeling relaxed with a true relaxation response. Behaviours that you enjoy doing such as reading or watching TV do not bring about true relaxation unless they include two elements:
- Focusing your mind on a repetitive phrase, word, breath, or action.
- Adopting a passive or accepting attitude towards a thought that goes through one’s head.
The relaxation response counteracts the automatic responses to pain, i.e. you stop guarding the painful area by tightening muscles. Relaxing the area releases the muscular tension, likely reduces the pain, and breaks a habit of guarding.
In addition, it is difficult to remain anxious and upset about anything when one is relaxed. The automatic response to anxiety (or stress, anger, and pain) involves tightening the chest and breathing in a shallow and rapid way. Sometimes people do not breathe at all (see core essential skill number five). This anxious breathing is the direct opposite to what occurs during relaxation. Therefore if one relaxes, the anxious or stressed feeling that goes with the pain is decreased and perhaps even the pain itself goes down.
Most people have a normal or constant level of muscle tension even at rest. This normal level is higher in people with chronic pain. This high constant tension decreases your tolerance for pain and increases your average pain level. Further, if your normal level of tension is high, the time it takes to reach peak levels of pain decreases. Your flare-ups happen faster. Repeated practice of relaxation techniques brings down this constant tension level. Once your normal level becomes lower, pain level should decrease and peak level should occur less often.
There are other bonuses of consistently practicing your relaxation techniques. During and after relaxation, your blood pressure and heart rate go down and your ability to use oxygen goes up. It leads to a decrease in how much your body reacts to the triggering of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight system). This is beneficial because chronic stress occurs when you overreact to the fight or flight system. Continued practice of relaxation, for at least one month, creates long-term changes in your body’s response to adrenaline (the fight or flight chemical). Instead of overreacting to adrenaline and chronically stressing the body’s system, the body learns to relax and respond appropriately.
Relaxation techniques can be used in many ways:
- During an episode of increased pain
- Daily as a preventive measure so tension does not reach high levels.
This pattern of breathing forms the foundation for the management of stress, anger, anxiety, and pain. It is simple to alter how deeply or slowly you breathe. When you change to a slower, deeper breath pattern, you are giving your body a message to take it easy and relax. When you are in stress or pain, your body is in alarm state. Repetitive relaxing breathing stops the alarm. There are two parts to breathing:
- Inhaling more volume of air
- Slowing the pace of breathing. Occasionally count how many breaths you take. You may find it interesting that a pace for relaxed breathing is 4 to 6 breaths per minute.
Lie down or sit comfortably in a chair. As you start to take in your breath, let your belly relax and think about the air sinking to the bottom of your lungs, thereby letting your belly rise. Follow through as you let your ribcage rise as you take in a comfortable volume of air. Pause at the top of your inhalation. Let go of that breath in a long, slow sigh. Finally, let your belly settle toward your backbone as you let all of that air go. Start again from the bottom and slowly take in another breath.
You can pace your breathing by counting yourself – in 2, 3, pause, then out, 2, 3, 4, let go. Repeat over and over.
As you release your breath slowly, be aware of what it feels like to let the muscles of your face or arms and hands go slack, soft, loose, and limp. The repetition of this slow breathing in and a long slow sigh of release can be a wave-like rhythm. The rhythm involves both the release of muscle tension and the deepening of relaxation.
Passive Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
With this technique you move progressively into relaxation and move progressively through muscle groups in the body. It is a passive technique because you do not tighten the muscles first. As you breathe in, just scan a particular muscle group for residual tension and release that tension as you breathe out. By timing the release of muscle tension with your exhalation of breath, you are taking advantage of a natural process of release. This timing is an important principle.
Lie down or sit comfortably in a chair. Let yourself settle into the beginning of relaxation by changing your breathing to a deeper, rhythmic breathing with a slow pace. The long, slow breath in prepares the body for relaxation.
Starting by focusing your attention on the muscles at the top, sides, and back of your head as you take a long breath in – pause – then release tension slowly as you slowly release your breath. Feel the muscles relax as you breathe out in a long slow sigh of release. You can take several breaths to do this.
Next notice the muscles of your face as you breathe in – pause – then release as you breathe out. Really let the muscles go soft, smooth, and slack as you breathe out in a long, slow exhalation. Follow through with the muscles of your neck and across the top of your back and so on. Work your way slowly through the muscle groups throughout your body.
As you finish at your feet, it is okay to go back and start again at the top of your head. You may also want to go to areas of chronic tightness or discomfort and repeatedly use the long, slow sigh of release as you let go of your breath to act as a signal for the long, slow release of muscle tension.
Hint: Tell yourself to “relax and release” or “let go: as you exhale slowly. Tell the muscles to “become slack, soft, loose, or limp”.
In Part B I will introduce one more meditation technique as well as introducing the idea of being an informed consumer.
Watch for other Core Essentials in future posts, so that you can truly live a healthful and active life.
To your pain-free health,
Bridge Physiotherapy and Massage