It’s usually the small rituals, little moments, and simple pleasures throughout the day that add up to help you manage a flare day or life with chronic pain. So, here are my top four rituals that might help you renew and recharge too.
Ritual #1: Relaxing Nature Images
You may already know that being out in nature is relaxing, but did you know that just looking at photographs of nature can activate your parasympathetic nervous system? This puts you in “rest and digest” mode?
Take a mental vacation by looking at pictures of landscapes, seascapes, plants, or animals. Just 5 minutes spent looking at these calming or cute pictures has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Pitrelli, 2020).
Researchers also found that looking at repeating natural patterns, called fractals, found in images of ferns, snowflakes, bamboo forests, or shells, is particularly soothing.
Instead of mindlessly scrolling through images, stop and sit with your breath while you really look at the photograph, taking in the colors, details, and your own sense of beauty or wonder.
Find soothing nature pictures online by following accounts on Instagram, like the World Wildlife Fund (@world_wildlife), Wild Life Photographer of the Year (@nhm_wpy), and National Geographic (@natgeo) or search for nature photography, landscape photography, and flower photography online.
Ritual #2: Mindful Eating
When you live with chronic pain you can get used to only experiencing negative sensations from your body. One antidote for this is to deliberately tune into positive sensations and really savor them. Enjoying positive sensations is an important way to enrich our lives by creating good moments, even in the midst of flares.
Take a five-minute mindful eating break and you’ll disrupt the pain signals traveling to your brain by refocusing your attention on the present moment. We’re not talking about binging on comfort food—this is a meditative, intentional practice.
To begin, choose a snack and notice the scent and appearance, which could be something like a piece of delectable fruit or a square of chocolate. Take a small bite and notice the texture of the food, whether it is warm or cold, and the first taste sensations. Continue to notice whether the taste evolves and focus on the physical feelings of tasting it. When you have finished, take a few moments to feel the enjoyment of eating something delicious, and focus on a sense of gratitude for having good food to eat.
If eating is a challenge because of your symptoms, you can adopt this practice to drinking tea or coffee, or even smelling a flower.
Ritual #3: Take A Cuddle Break With An Animal Friend
All mammals possess the internal instinct to nurture and bond with others, which is called the “tend and befriend” drive. Cuddling with a pet triggers allows you to tap into your deepest instincts for care and connection. Eye contact while interacting with pets has been shown to significantly increase oxytocin production (Murphy, 2018).
Hugs and cuddles trigger the release of the “love hormone” oxytocin, which makes you feel safe and connected (Deyo, 2018). Oxytocin also reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol. That’s why touch has the power to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension.
Set aside time each day to spend several minutes petting or cuddling with your cat, dog, or another friendly animal. By making pet time a regular part of your day you’ll experience the de-stressing benefits.
Petting and playing with cats and dogs also stimulates the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which can help to alleviate anxiety and depression. Visits with therapy dogs at a pain management clinic were found to reduce pain and emotional distress in patients (Confronting Chronic Pain, 2016).
Don’t have a pet? Ask a friend or family member to bring their pet along when they visit or when you go on a walk together, find out about volunteering at your local animal shelter, or get a long hug from a human loved one.
Ritual #4: Animal Videos
I’ll admit that looking at cat videos on YouTube is a guilty pleasure of mine. I was, of course, delighted to learn that science supports watching cat videos as a de-stressing activity! In fact, watching videos of any cute baby animals can reduce blood pressure, anxiety and heart rate, which are all signs that your parasympathetic nervous system is engaged (Bagliere, 2020).
Many people enjoy watching live webcams of pandas and other animals from zoos like the Smithsonian National Zoo.
For cat videos, you can scroll through #Caturday posts on Instagram or check out Buzzfeed’s weekly cat videos.
If you’re more of a dog person, you might enjoy the viral Olive and Mabel videos that sportscaster Andrew Cotter made in quarantine, commenting on their doggy games like he was calling a football match.
A daily dose of cuteness could be the best tip yet for managing chronic pain on flare days!
Bagliere, J. (2020). Science Shows Watching Cute Animals Is Good For Your Health. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/27/us/watching-cute-animals-study-scn-trnd/index.html
Confronting Chronic Pain. (2016). Can A Pet Help With Your Chronic Pain? Confronting Chronic Pain. Retrieved from http://www.confrontingchronicpain.com/can-a-pet-help-with-your-chronic-pain/
Deyo, B. (2018). Five Science Backed Reasons to Cuddle With Your Pet Every Day. Thrive Global. Retrieved from: https://thriveglobal.com/stories/5-science-backed-reasons-to-cuddle-with-your-pet-every-day/
Murphy, K. (2018). The Science Behind Our Love Of Pets. Hills Pets. Retrieved from https://www.hillspet.com/pet-care/behavior-appearance/why-humans-love-pets
Pitrelli, M. (2020). Mental Escape Pictures Actually Relieve Stress. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/31/mental-vacations-and-travel-photos-relieve-stress.html