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Stop the Stress-Pain Connection : Relaxation Techniques (part 1)

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Along with lifestyle strategies to reduce stress, there are several relaxation therapies that are scientifically substantiated to speed production of new immune cells and control the damaging stress hormone Cortisol.

For example, deep abdominal breathing helps reduce physical stress and negative thoughts—and increases your inner ability to self-manage pain. Visualization allows you to remove yourself mentally from a stressful moment and lower your anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure. With biofeedback, you work with a trained therapist to understand your SOS before they cause injury to the body. Music therapy can be done anyplace, anytime, as you relax and reduce muscle tension.

Each of the following relaxation strategies helps to ward off and even control painful flare-ups that can be triggered by stress. If practiced regularly, your body will learn to elicit the relaxation response, which can help to relieve the added anxiety that often accompanies ongoing pain. Many people find that it is only after several weeks of daily, consistent practice that they can maintain the relaxed feeling beyond the practice session itself, so don’t give up before you see the benefits.

Try to set aside a period of 10 to 15 minutes that you can devote to relaxation practice, removing any outside distractions that can disrupt your concentration. You might even start with only 2 to 3 minutes and gradually increase as your skills improve. Recline comfortably so that your whole body is supported, and relieve any muscle tension. Use a pillow or cushion under your head, if this helps.

Caffeine in Foods

Coffee, drip 5 oz. 90–115 mg
Coffee, perked 5 oz. 60–125 mg
Coffee, instant 5 oz. 60–80 mg
Coffee, decaf 5 oz. 2–5 mg
Coffee, espresso 1.5–2oz. 100 mg
Coca-Cola 20.oz 60 mg
Coke, Diet 20.oz 80 mg
Tea, 5 min. steep 5.oz 40–100 mg
Tea, 3 min. steep 5oz. 20–50 mg
Herbal tea 8oz 0 mg
Hot cocoa 5 oz. 2–10 mg

Deep Abdominal Breathing

Remember Susan, my patient who uses deep abdominal breathing to gain control over her neck pain? Breathing is one of the few activities of the body that we can consciously control. The problem is that increased stress tends to result in improper breathing—from the upper chest, using the muscles of your neck and upper back. This shallow breathing results in an increase in your blood pressure and heart rate. On the other hand, breathing slowly from your abdomen allows more oxygen to fill the lungs and brain, resulting in less anxiety, reduced upper-body tension, and even lower blood pressure.

Deep abdominal breathing actually alters your psychological state, making a painful moment diminish in intensity. Think about how your respiration quickens when you are fearful or in great pain. Then take a deep, slow breath and feel the immediate calming effect, reducing both stress and levels of pain.

Researchers know that the brain makes its own morphinelike pain relievers, called endorphins and enkephalins. These hormones are associated with a happy, positive feeling and can help relay “stop pain” messages throughout your body. During deep abdominal breathing, you will oxygenate your blood, which triggers the release of endorphins, while also decreasing the release of stress hormones and slowing down your heart rate.

Lie on your back in a quiet room with no distractions. Place your hands on your abdomen, and take in a slow, deliberate deep breath through your nostrils. If your hands are rising and your abdomen is expanding, then you are breathing correctly. If your hands do not rise, yet you see your chest rising, you are breathing incorrectly. Inhale to a count of 5, pause for 3 seconds, and then exhale to a count of 5. Start with 10 repetitions of this exercise, and then increase to 25, twice daily. Use this exercise any time you feel anxious or stressed because of pain.

Blowing Your Stress Away

HERE’S A STRESS-REDUCTION technique that I share with my patients: Buy a bottle of inexpensive children’s bubbles (in the toy section at any store), and use it to learn how to breathe slowly. Breathing from your abdomen, blow through the bubble blower with a steady stream of breath. If you blow too hard or too softly, you won’t get any bubbles. However, you will find that smooth and steady breaths will produce a nice flow of bubbles. Use this breathing technique without the bubbles when you are feeling stressed.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Carla suffered with the deep muscle pain of fibromyalgia for three years until she learned progressive muscle relaxation. This young mother had tried several pain medications, but these made her tired and unable to care for her two preschoolers. Desperate for relief, Carla agreed to learn the relaxation therapies in this step and found progressive muscle relaxation especially helpful when her muscle pain flared up in the evening hours, keeping her from relaxing or sleeping.

This exercise involves contracting and then relaxing all the different muscle groups in the body, beginning with your head and neck and progressing down to your arms, chest, back, stomach, pelvis, legs, and feet. To do this exercise, you focus on each set of muscles, tense these muscles to the count of 10, then release to the count of 10. Go slowly as you progress throughout your body, taking as long as you can. Get in touch with each part and feel the tension you are experiencing. Notice how it feels to be tension-free as you release the muscle.

Studies show that when you can create a strong mental image using this type of relaxation technique, you actually feel “removed” from cumbersome stress and the pain response. This mindfulness, or focusing all attention on what you feel at the moment, can help you move beyond the pain you may feel as you become centered in a world of health and inner healing.

Visualization

Most people look forward to vacations because it gives the body and mind respite from the frenzied pace of everyday life. But who can afford to take time off from work to drive to the mountains or seashore every time life’s stressors engulf them? For most of us, we’d have to leave town every Friday night in search of serenity! But that’s the beauty of visualization. This form of relaxation is used for controlling emotional distress and pain. While some people are naturally better at imagining than others, I believe that most people can learn this simple technique and then use it anytime their SOS (page 188) become apparent.

Simply thinking about your pain can create more pain, which is why relaxation therapies such as visualization can help reduce pain. To practice visualization, take a time-out in a quiet environment without distractions. During this time, try to visualize a peaceful, relaxing scene, perhaps a vacation spot you have enjoyed—a photograph of a mountain sunset, soft, pink clouds in a light blue sky, or an early morning sunrise at the beach. Focus on this scene in your mind, and try to recapture the moment as you imagine the sounds, smells, textures, and feelings you would experience. As you visualize the serenity of the scene, become mindful of your breathing and anxiety level. If you still feel tense, breathe deeply from your abdomen to increase relaxation. Don’t let outside stimuli interrupt your imagery time.

Once you have learned how to relax with visualization, keep a picture or photograph of the scene with you. If you sense that your SOS are increasing, take time apart from whatever you are doing and visualize the peaceful scene. Again, try to re-create the calmness of the scenic moment as you create your own circle of serenity.

Optimism Eases Pain

JUST AS SCIENTISTS have found that positive beliefs can ease pain (the placebo effect), they also have found that negative beliefs and influences can induce pain (the nocebo effect).

Music Therapy

Many successful businesses have found that background music—particularly classical music, such as works by Mozart—is especially effective in helping clients relax. I find that music is an excellent means of reducing mental stress as well as physical pain. In clinical studies, both doctors and patients agreed that listening to music produced greater decreases in peaks of tension and greater compliance with relaxation practice.

Try to spend 10 to 15 minutes a day listening to soothing music. Once you’ve achieved this habit, add another mind/body technique, such as visualization or deep abdominal breathing while listening to music. Does the music help you feel more relaxed? I find it helpful if the pace of the music is slower than your heart rate, or approximately 60 beats a minute, as this can encourage your heart rate to slow down. Some studies have shown that music can also lower blood pressure, while also reducing levels of stress hormones.

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