Relaxation Techniques You Need to Try for Chronic Tension and Chronic Pain
I have chronic tension problems. My muscles are hardwired to tense up. I also have a chronically keyed up nervous system. And I have chronic pain.
Due to all these issues, I had to learn how to relax. It’s literally part of the physical therapy and pain management I’ve been prescribed. Years ago, I learned to relax my muscles. It’s still not instinctive but it’s something I can do with concentration. And now, I’m learning how to calm my nervous system.
I want to stress that while it’s nice to approach these techniques with an open mind, these worked for me despite extreme resistance and skepticism at the beginning. I was angry that they were asking me to do this thing that clearly didn’t work. And it did. I’ve had 10 years to keep learning and investigating what works for me. Here are some techniques I learned and use, including a simple self-hypnosis technique for anyone who can’t relax their muscles.
Very important: try to breathe evenly when you do these exercises. Many people hold their breath when they focus on something. This is never helpful, but especially not when you are trying to relax.
How to stand, sit or lie down feeling grounded:
Start with your face. First, release your jaw. Let it go slack. Your upper and bottom teeth should not be touching. Now allow your face to go slack. If you’ve ever had anesthetic at the dentist and not been able to feel parts of your face, try to imagine that feeling.
When standing or sitting:
Release your shoulders. That doesn’t mean push them down. If you feel you are doing any work to do this, raise your arms to the ceiling and then let them swing down. When your arms fall, you’ll have a moment where your shoulders feel supported by your skeleton alone. That’s the sweet spot. You can also try raising and lowering your shoulders to feel it. This may take practice. It took having a teacher watch me and call me on pressing my shoulders down to make them look relaxed.
Your posture at this point won’t feel elegant or proud. Instead, it should feel like something has eased. You are letting gravity pull on you and relying on your skeleton to hold you up.
Seated, standing or sitting:
Imagine your body’s weight being taken up more and more each moment by the chair or the floor.
Now release your belly. Don’t jut it out, but if you’ve tucked it under or sucked it in, let it go. This may feel really strange. Most of the readers this will reach have been taught to hide and hate their bellies. You might not realize you’ve internalized this, but try to enjoy the feeling of letting your belly swell and contract as you are breathing. Place your hands on your belly and feel the movement.
This movement happens because your diaphragm pushes your organs out of the way so your lungs can expand down. Every breath you take requires a rearrangement of your squishy parts. That’s pretty amazing. So allowing your belly to swell when you breathe is important. It allows your lungs to fill up.
If you had any negative thoughts about your belly during this exercise, try to take some time to marvel at what’s happening beneath it. Learning to stop hating your body actually really helps you relax it; more on that below.
If you are standing, give your knees a gentle bend. Now focus on any place you are feeling ease. Maybe most of your body hurts and it’s just in your face, your shoulders or your belly. Maybe it’s the tip of your finger resting on your belly. Focus on that sense of ease. Bring to mind other times you have felt ease if you can.
Check in with your face, your shoulders, your belly. Anything that is resting on another surface, imagine it’s melting into the surface. The bed, the floor, the chair — allow them to take up your weight.
Just ride the breath, and try not to get discouraged if the breath feels ragged or too fast. Ride it with a sense of ease.
Advanced Relaxation: Physiological Quieting
What I like about this technique is that it works for some who can’t relax their muscles on command. Now, I’m not promising 100% relaxation — everyone’s body is different — but I find this works for me better than progressive relaxation.
You’ll want to do this lying down with your knees, lower back and neck supported if that helps you feel comfortable. I recommend doing it in a bed or recliner.
You can start from your head or your toes; feel free to mix it up. Systematically bring to mind the muscle groups in your body, your feet, your lower leg and so on. As you do, repeat in your mind, “My foot is warm, my foot is heavy, my foot is very relaxed.” I’d recommend saying this at least three times but feel free to say it more often if you aren’t feeling that muscle group relax.
Parasympathetic 2-to-1 Breathing
If you are dealing with general anxiousness and the exercise of riding your breath is just frustrating, there is a more specific breathing exercise that can help. Your body breathes quickly when you are anxious — it’s the fight or flight response. What’s interesting is that breathing can signal the brain to continue that response or stop it (again, you might not find this is enough to handle all anxious feelings — I’m no doctor, just a patient who has had some good luck with these techniques).
What you want to do is count while you inhale and then double that count when you exhale. Exhale and inhale as evenly as possible. Exhaling for twice as long as you inhale signals to your brain that you aren’t in danger. You are safe enough that you are breathing deeply. That can help the feelings of anxiousness to disappear.
I’ve found that when I relax, I get better benefit if I work on appreciating my body. This took a decade to learn, so I don’t know if it will work for you. Many of us don’t like this or that part of us. Maybe it’s body image issues. Maybe it’s hating how your gut keeps you from going places, or how your hip aches so much it’s hard to move. We tend to look to find a place to focus our frustration for how we feel. That’s normal. But I find, for me, it gets in the way of true relaxation. My belly is where I tend to focus my dislike. It’s too big, it houses my gut which is problematic, so I don’t like it.
I realized I had to let go of that when I did voice movement therapy work. My belly also is part of the movement of the breath, and I needed to feel comfortable with letting it be free and obvious when I sang. That took a lot of mental work. But doing that work meant I was able to work on singing and relaxation without simultaneously hating a part of myself.
There are two main ways I work on appreciating the body. I sometimes go through each part and try to think of the beneficial and effortless actions that part does, in spite of whatever issues I have with it. Maybe if my ankle is being problematic, I’ll think of how blood is still flowing through it without effort. Or, I’ll consider that even when my asthma is unpleasant (and mine isn’t severe), I’m still managing to breathe without conscious decision.
The approach above might be too hard on certain days, or if you struggle with certain problems. So, I do have another I use. This can be either the first step of conscious relaxation or something you do afterward. Bring to mind a person (children are great for this) or animal you feel platonic affection for. Take that feeling of affection and try to apply it to your body. The imagery I use is imagining I’m painting my body with affection. As each part of me is painted, it is bathed in a warm golden light.
Physiological quieting tracks are available online. Sometimes, it’s helpful to listen to someone guide you. This was the first thing I was asked to do in a pain clinic and it really worked. I’d link to my favorites but my favorite isn’t available publicly. Instead, here’s a shout-out to Eve Kennedy, who taught me this approach.
Vidyamala Burch is an excellent teacher who experiences a lot of body problems and is a wheelchair user. I learned a lot (more than I expected) from her book “Living Well With Pain and Illness. “She has some online meditation courses through the app InsightTimer and though Breathworks, a company she founded. Many of her courses are on dealing with pain and illness. If you are lucky, you might find an in-person course in your area. You can also buy meditation tracks from her online. She is a Buddhist, but while her approach includes some inspiration from Buddhism, it is secular. She’s a marvelous teacher.
Bodhipakṣa is working on a book on self-compassion and teaches online courses on the subject. His work on compassion involves the body and he’s an excellent teacher.
Finally, I’d like to recommend my friend Mali Sastri. If you want to work with movement and voice, she’s an amazing resource. You can read about how our work affected my health here.
A version of this article originally appeared on the author’s blog.
Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash