Jenny L. F. Andrus, M.D.
Purposeful relaxation calms the mind, decreases stress hormones, relaxes muscles, reduces blood pressure, and may elevate your sense of peace and well-being. That sounds amazing, right? For many of us, especially those living with chronic pain, it might be challenging to learn deep relaxation in order to appreciate all of its benefits. It’s ironic to say that relaxation takes practice, but it does! It requires you to quiet the mind and focus on one simple thing: breathing. Focusing on deep breathing will encourage your body and mind to enter a relaxed state. Deep breathing promotes healthy blood flow, releases toxins from the body, and aids in getting restorative sleep.
Numerous studies have been done to determine if relaxation helps to relieve chronic pain. Some studies indicate that it does relieve pain, while others say there is no evidence to support such a conclusion. It is worth a try to see if it might work for you. If nothing else, it is a wonderful way to relieve stress and calm the mind.
We breathe thousands of times per day, but few of us pay attention to consciously breathing. If you take a few moments to slow the breath down, you will feel changes happen inside your body. Here are a few tips on how to breathe for maximum relaxation (and hopefully natural pain relief!):
- Lie down or recline in a chair in a comfortable, quiet place. Give yourself 5-10 minutes to be free from distractions
- Give yourself a moment to purposefully relax your muscles. Are you holding tension anywhere? If so, notice it and release it
- A good pace is 4-5 seconds per inhale and 4-5 seconds per exhale. On the exhale, empty your lungs completely. Practice inhaling through the nose, and exhale through your mouth or nose. While you’re inhaling, focus on belly breathing – imagine your stomach inflating and deflating as you breathe. You can test this by placing one hand on your chest and the other on your belly
- The next part of this relaxation technique is to be mindful of your breath. Notice the sensation of the air going in and out of your lungs. How does it feel? Does this cause feelings or sensations in other parts of your body? If feelings, distractions, or thoughts crop up, notice and acknowledge them, then return to focusing on your breath. This is the practice of mindfulness
- Many people need more structure. If structure is important to you, you can try 4-square breathing:
- Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of 4
- Hold your breath for a count of 4
- Breathe out through your mouth for a count of 4
- Hold for a count of 4
Try to do this exercise at least once per day for natural pain relief. You will likely notice a difference in your mental state, and hopefully, your pain levels as well. The next time you can’t fall asleep, you’re angry, or in pain, take a few minutes to walk yourself through this exercise.