Originally published October 27, 2020
Nothing makes my blood boil more than being told to “calm down” or “relax” when I am worked up about something (which is often!). If I knew how to calm down and relax believe me I would! But there is wisdom in those words once we get past the insensitivity of the person saying (or more often shouting) this at us and begin to understand just exactly HOW to relax.
I recently had the privilege of attending a pain seminar through the Bill Nelems Pain and Research Centre in Kelowna. The two-part seminar, entitled “Empowered Relief”, taught by psychotherapists Madeleine Eames MSW and Mary Ellen McNaughton MA is built on studies out of Stanford University. In “Empowered Relief” we examined what pain is, how our bodies respond to pain, the consequences of that response if sustained, and how to move from the response into a state of relaxation and relief.
What was interesting to me was that the response in our bodies to pain and to stress are virtually identical. If we can learn how to manage our response to pain, we can also learn how to respond to stress and anxiety in a healthier way.
Our pain and stress responses are natural processes in our minds and bodies designed to protect us. Pain warns us that our bodies are harmed and we need to protect ourselves. Stress or anxiety warns us that what hurt us before may hurt us again. There is a physiological process that happens when we feel that pain or stress.
Imagine, for a moment, that you have been stung by a bee. You feel the pain of the sting, you draw a sharp breath, your muscles tighten which causes your blood vessels to constrict and your heart rate to increase and your mind starts to race with thoughts of getting away from the bee. Your body does this in response to pain to protect you from getting stung again. This is the pain response.
The next time you encounter a bee, your brain summons up a similar response to the threat of being stung by a bee. You see the bee, you take a sharp breath to get the oxygen you need in order to escape, your muscles tense to prepare for flight, your blood vessels to constrict and your heart begins to race. Your mind floods with thoughts of getting away and strategies for defense. This is the stress response.
In both cases, when you get away from the bee, your brain begins the relax response. You are no longer in pain, or in danger. Your breathing slows and deepens, your muscles relax causing your heart to slow and your blood vessels to dilate. Your mind becomes calmer and you can begin to think more consciously.
The problem for many of us is, that pain and stress can come from within. We looked at chronic pain and how the ongoing feeling of pain causes us to remain stuck in the pain response rather than to move into the relaxation response. Our breathing stays shallow and rapid, our muscles tense, our heart rate high, our blood vessels constricted and our mind racing.
It is again the same with stress and anxiety. When the triggers for stress and anxiety become long term, due to trauma or other chronic conditions in our lives, we cannot move from the stress response to the relaxation response. We become stuck.
The bad news here is that the way our bodies respond to pain and stress without switching into the relaxation response, can cause more pain and more stress. The reduction of blood flow, through tense muscles, the shallow rapid breathing and elevated heart rate contribute to chronic pain making it worse. It seems likely also that these same conditions, which feel akin to anxiety, would also make us more anxious and stressed.
However, there is good news. Although we cannot control our blood vessels, our heart rate, our muscles and quite often our anxious thoughts, we can control our breathing and this is the gateway to breaking the pain/stress response and moving into the relaxation response.
Breathing is in your control. When you find yourself in pain, be it physical or psychological, you can consciously choose to take slower and deeper breaths. Because your body cannot hold both the pain/stress response and the relaxation response at the same time, choosing to take slow deep breaths breaks the cycle. This takes time and practice to do but is achievable for everyone.
There are many apps available to walk you through a guided mediation of slowing your breathing that you can try, but you can also do this alone and for yourself. Find a calm private spot and take one slow deep breath from your stomach rather than from your chest and shoulders. Hold it for a moment and then slowly let it out. Repeat this for as long as you can despite any racing thoughts and body tension. The longer you can do this, the calmer your body will become.
Slowing your breath will break the pain/stress response; your body will accept that you are not in danger. Your breath slows and deepens, your muscles relax, your heart rate slows, your blood vessels dilate and your mind calms. Although the pain or the stress may still be present, your symptoms, your physical reactions to it, can be alleviated.