By Diane LaChapelle Ph.D. LPsyc
Relaxation strategies are some of the most important things you can do for yourself. Relaxation will help you manage both the pain itself and the consequences of living with pain. These consequences include tense muscles, anger, stress, depression, and fatigue. For this reason, relaxation is often the best place to start.
There are many different relaxation strategies. The key is to try many or all of the strategies, to find the one that suits your personal style and preferences. Once you find your strategy, stick with it faithfully.
Unfortunately, relaxation seems to be something that people resist doing. Others may try once and give up before they see the benefits. Perhaps this is because spending time relaxing seems selfish or foolish or because learning to relax is actually hard work. In any case, you are strongly encouraged to give relaxation a fair try. One of these strategies will work for you. Start with one that appeals to you and practice it daily for at least two weeks. If you feel that you are not making progress or that it is not working for you, move on to try another one of the strategies. Give each strategy a fair trial before moving on. Once you find the one that works for you, stick with it.
Some words of caution before you begin: Some people actually become more anxious as they try to relax. If you find yourself becoming anxious while doing any of these techniques, stop and consult a psychologist.
Deep abdominal breathing
- This simple technique is extremely effective. It also forms the foundation of many relaxation strategies.
- Deep abdominal breathing can be used anywhere at any time.
- For instructions on how to do deep abdominal breathing, see this website from the American Medical Student Association
- Caution: If you experience light-headedness or dizziness, breath less deeply and for a shorter period of time.
Progressive muscle relaxation
- This is a good place to start for those who are more physical and less visual.
- For instructions on how to do progressive muscle relaxation, see this website from Guide to Psychology.
- Instructions on progressive muscle relaxation can also be found on this website from AnxietyBC (PDF).
- Be sure to use abdominal breathing while doing progressive muscle relaxation.
- Caution: Depending on the nature of your chronic pain, tensing a particular muscle group may cause pain. If this is the case, simply skip that area of your body.
- If you have a good imagination, this strategy might be a good fit.
- Start with your abdominal breathing and add to this by visualizing yourself in a favourite place. Choose a relaxing image that involves just you. Perhaps you are alone on the beach or sitting in a little rowboat, with your fishing line in the lake before anyone else is awake. Try to engage all of your senses in as much detail as possible. How does your place look, feel, smell, taste, and sound?
- More detailed instructions about imagery can be found on the About.com website.
- This might be considered a more difficult or advanced technique, but the evidence indicates it is highly effective.
- Instructions on mindfulness meditation can be found on the Mindful Works website.
- Instructions can also be found in books written by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
- Exercise that combines breathing with focused concentration can help with relaxation, stress reduction, and physical fitness.
- Exercises to try include yoga and tai chi.
General information on relaxation
Audio guides for relaxation exercises
- StressStop.com has a number of CDs that provide guided instructions on a variety of different relaxation techniques. Try one of the following: Guided Imagery Tapes by Belleruth Naparstek, Just Relax, or Relaxing Through the Seasons.
- Jon Kabat-Zinn has a number of mindfulness-based meditation CDs that are an excellent addition to his book Full Catastrophe Living. Check the website www.mindfulnesscds.com.
Visual guidance for relaxation (biofeedback)
If you need some concrete feedback about your level of relaxation, try the Institute of Heart Math’s biofeedback software for your computer. Check the website store.heartmath.org.