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Stop the Stress-Pain Connection : Learning to Relax at the First Sign of Pain

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When my patient Susan feels her neck pain coming on, she drops whatever she’s doing at the time, turns on her favorite CD, and begins her deep abdominal breathing exercises that put her in a calmer state of mind. If Susan is at home, her teenagers know to leave her alone for a while until she has finished her relaxation exercises and calmed her body and mind. If she’s at work, Susan closes the door to her office and takes her phone off the hook to allow a break from the frenetic workplace environment.

Learning to drop what you’re doing and relax at will in the midst of having pain is not an easy skill. Nevertheless, Susan and many of my patients have found ways to interrupt the pain process whenever they feel the first sign of tension or pain in their muscles and joints.

While many of my patients use relaxation therapies to remove themselves mentally and emotionally from the painful moment, pain is extremely complex. Not only is it influenced by changes in your body chemistry, there are environmental, psychological, and social triggers. Chronic pain is not like an ear infection, where you can take an antibiotic and, in a few days, there’s no more pain. There is no salve or ointment that can cure it. Many times, your doctor cannot even find what’s causing the pain. Unlike a fracture or a known disease, soft-tissue pain may not appear on an x-ray or even respond to medical treatment. Moreover, how do you measure pain? What may be horrible pain to you may be considered mild to your colleague, or vice versa.

Calm the Mind to Calm the Body

Because pain is so elusive and difficult to measure, it lends itself well to mind/body therapies. I have found in my clinic that relaxation therapies are extremely effective in decreasing pain when used in conjunction with moist heat applications (page 174) and medications. Often when patients take pain medications over a long period of time, their bodies adjust to that level of medication. However, when my patients combine stress management and relaxation therapies along with pain medications, most report having fewer episodes of debilitating pain and some patients even take less pain medication. When they add moist heat applications (or hot baths or showers) to the medications and relaxation therapies, they experience even greater results with less pain and increased mobility. Although no one is sure just how relaxation exercises work to decrease pain, some researchers believe that muscle relaxation might reduce the number of pain signals delivered to the nervous system.

Change Your Pain Perception

There are some studies showing that we can learn how to make our brains feel less pain and react to pain so that it doesn’t bother us as much or even at all. Surely you’ve heard stories of a person who can walk on nails or hot coals without feeling pain. I recall reading about a mother who virtually lifted a car off her teenage son when the jack collapsed on him while he was changing a tire. Another recently reported story was of the young surfer in Hawaii who felt no pain when her arm was taken off by a shark. Likewise, the soldier in Iraq who miraculously never stopped in his effort to save his buddies even with a severe injury to his leg, claimed to feel no pain.

While these efforts used to be thought of as heroic, scientists can now show some of the brain responses with the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain using special techniques. This functional neuroimaging allows pain volunteers to see their brain activity while feeling pain. As they try to control the pain using various mind/body methods, the volunteers can then see how this changes brain activity.

Just thinking about your pain—creates pain. This is why relaxation therapies can help you regain control.

Start with Simple Strategies

Moving beyond acceptance of your pain, it’s time to learn some easy ways to relax and regain control of your life. For example, evaluating your priorities and budgeting your time are excellent organizational skills that can help you eliminate the “clutter” in your daily life. Saying no when you are overly committed is another positive strategy you can take—even though most people have a difficult time doing this. I remember one patient, Marianne, telling me that simply getting the nerve to say no to family and friends caused her more inner turmoil than actually saying no!

Exercise Boosts Mood and Restful Sleep

A super way to de-stress includes increasing exercise. Regular exercise increases the neurotransmitter serotonin, helping to boost mood and regulate sleep. Exercise also increases phenylethylamine, a natural stimulant that also boosts a positive sense of well-being. In addition, as I discussed in Rx #2, exercise keeps your joints moving in a full range of motion and keeps your muscles and bones strong—all important for living pain free.

Reduce Caffeine

I also encourage my patients who have difficulty coping with stress to greatly reduce their caffeine intake, as this food mimics the stress response with a short-term rise in their blood pressure and heart rate. Many patients have come to my office and found their usually normal blood pressure and pulse elevated after having a cup or two of coffee. Caffeine also heightens the side effects of pain medications, resulting in feelings of trembling or high anxiety for some individuals.

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