You’ve probably heard your doctor, therapist and caring friends say it plenty of times when they see you struggling with chronic pain: you should get some rest. Everybody needs the benefits of their body’s own relaxation response.
Chances are, you already spend many hours curled up on the couch, scrolling through social media or binge-watching your favorite TV shows. But although Netflix and “chill” surely can be a welcome distraction from pain, it’s not the same as real rest.
Real rest involves more than lying down and keeping your activities to a minimum. If you’d like to reach a deep state of restoration, in which healing can occur, you need to activate your body’s natural relaxation response.
What is a relaxation response – and, what is it not?
Simply put, the relaxation response is the opposite of fight or flight mode. During times of stress, your body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that stimulate your nervous system to prepare for action. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up, your breathing quickens and your muscles tense up. This fight or flight mode may save your life when you’re in acute danger, but it’s less helpful when you’re stressed about health problems, work deadlines, or being stuck in traffic.
On the other hand, the relaxation response acts as a natural tranquilizer: it lowers your heartbeat, relaxes your muscles, and balances your nervous system.
We all know that chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body and mind. But unfortunately, the relaxation response doesn’t automatically kick in when you’ve met your work deadline or passed that traffic jam.
That’s why it’s so important to make time for real rest, especially when you’re living with chronic pain.
Basically, every activity that slows your breathing and heart rate, relaxes your muscles, and calms your mind can elicit a relaxation response.
Here are 6 proven ways you can create a relaxation response in your body and mind:
- Practice slow movement.
Mind-body interventions like yoga, tai chi, and pilates combine gentle movement and controlled breathing to ease tension in your body and get your mind into a meditative state.
- Spend time in nature.
Research shows that being in natural surroundings lowers your cortisol levels, eases mental fatigue, and calms your nervous system. Forest bathing – immersing yourself in the woods – is especially known for its health-boosting powers, but pottering around in the garden also grounds you in the present moment.
- Work with your hands.
Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert found that actions that produce tangible results, like knitting, baking a cake, or organizing your closets, trigger the reward center in your brain. Through the following neurochemical reactions, working with your hands decreases stress and depressive symptoms. So when you feel physically up for it, make time for hands-on hobbies like painting, sewing clothes, or doing odd jobs around the house.
- Take a mindful micro-break.
Got a minute to spare in your busy day? Resist the temptation to check your email or watch a cute cat video, and do something that really recharges you instead. Do a walking meditation, by focusing on the physical sensations of putting one foot in front of the other. You can also try to be fully present during everyday activities like washing the dishes: how the bowl feels in your hand, the temperature of the water, and the way you’re standing. Mindfulness is a proven method to relieve stress and achieve a state of calm concentration.
- Try simple self-massage techniques to let go of tension in your body.
Give yourself a soothing foot rub by making circling motions with your thumb or applying pressure with your knuckles. You could also use long strokes on your limbs or work out knots in tight shoulders with a little help from a self-massage tool.
- Hug and hold hands.
Cuddling with loved ones and pets releases the feel-good chemical oxytocin, which triggers a relaxation response, reduces stress, relieves pain, and even boosts your immunity. What’s more, physical touch deepens your relationships – and having loving family and friends to turn to in times of trouble is the best buffer against harmful stress you could ask for. No one around? Do a loving-kindness mediation to increase relaxing feelings of warmth towards yourself and others.
As entertaining as online entertainment is, it often doesn’t offer the kind of deep relaxation you need. So, try to build routines into your days that will give you the benefits of a real relaxation response and help you let go of tension in your body, breathe deeply, and quiet your mind.