Home › ThinkSpace › Week 9: Mindfulness As a Way to Get in Touch with Your Body › Relieving stress with Mindfulness
May 4, 2016 at 4:00 am
Stress has come up in many topics throughout our body listening exploration. It’s a problem that all of us deal with in some manner. Stress exacerbates our symptoms. Stress exacerbates everything! I had a realization a few years ago that the stress from my pain and from the frustration of searching for a diagnosis and an effective treatment was actually making me feel even worse. It was this vicious downward spiral of pain and stress, completely holding me back from moving forward and living my life. When I learned about the parasympathetic nervous system it really resonated with me how important it is to address stress . This might be old hat for you, but for me it was a revelation. The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body at rest and restores it to a state of calm. It is complementary to the sympathetic nervous system which controls stimulating activities, like our fight-or-flight response. I realized that when my parasympathetic nervous system can’t do it’s thing, I am living in a constant state of fight-or-flight!! No wonder my body couldn’t begin to heal when it was constantly in emergency-mode.
All that is to say that when I realized how critical it was to reduce stress, I began looking for ways that I can incorporate stress reduction into my regimen. My focus shifted from solely treating the area of my pain to working on restoring my body so that it could begin to treat itself.
I began learning more about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Programs. I learned about the very first MBSR program that was started by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the U. Massachusetts Medical Center, and then I discovered that programs like this exist all over, like the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, or the MBSR Program through Duke Integrative Medicine. I was floored to learn about these programs, because here were doctors telling everyone that reducing stress really IS important and acknowledging that mindfulness is a legitimate and effective way to treat your body, not just some new age hokum. The idea is that meditation can be used to trigger the Relaxation Response. This term was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson to describe the mind’s ability to encourage the body to slow muscles and organs and increase blood flow to the brain, triggering your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. With this new insight, I was on board and excited to ramp up my mindfulness practice.
Since I’ve started practicing mindfulness regularly I’ve noticed positive effects in all aspects of my life, but particularly on my pain and my approach to dealing with my pain. I think stress reduction was the key for me in moving forward and better managing my chronic pain. I can’t believe it took me so long to realize it!
#mindfulnessforthebody #stressreduction #MBSR
Does reduction of stress contribute to reducing your symptoms? Do you incorporate mindfulness based stress reduction into your treatment? How do you elicit your body’s relaxation response?
May 5, 2016 at 4:32 pm
Over the years I have tried many, many, many different techniques to reduce stress. In my experience, the technique used is unimportant – it can be meditation, but it can also be breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, whatever. The regular practice of the technique is what allows me to recall the relaxation response in times of stress to return my usually involuntary body functions back to their normal, unstressed rates.
I have found that my best and favorite techniques are walking meditation, guided imagery, reiki, and breathing. While most techniques when practiced regularly and with intention will provide relief from stress and often also from pain, I think the tendency is for us to gravitate to one or two which fit into our lifestyle and belief system. I had been meditating for decades, and using guided imagery and reiki for the same, but breathing practice always was an issue. I used to sing for recreation when I was young and still automatically practice diaphragmatic breathing. But whenever I tried to do a breathing meditation or slow, controlled breathing practice I would always feel like I couldn’t catch my breath (as in a panic) and it would actually add to the tension in my body, and to my stress. Although over time I developed some control and slowed my normal breathing rate, I could never understand what caused my breathing issues and I couldn’t fix them.
Fast forward to 2013 when I was enrolled in the Comprehensive Pain Management program at Sharp Hospital in San Diego. They did my intake and decided I needed to work on several areas, which included two types of biofeedback: muscle tension and cardio-respiratory. From the awareness that I developed through cardio-respiratory biofeedback, I learned that I hold my breath automatically when I am faced with a stressor, no matter the source. (I just caught myself holding my breath again, simply from retelling this.) It’s kind of like when you are watching a thriller movie and you know something really scary is going to happen and you take in a breath and hold it due to the suspense – I did this constantly. The more pain I had, the more stress I felt from the problems it added to my life, and the fewer regular breaths I took. I wasn’t breathing, yet we have to breathe to live! Is there any question why I felt like I was just going through the motions, and not really living?
I don’t know how many biofeedback sessions I had – probably only about four or five, but the technician also directed me to practice breathing daily using one of the free breathing smartphone apps. I tried MyCalmBeat and Breathe2Relax. I practiced twice a day – morning and evening – for 20 minutes. I started out with these apps and found that with regular practice, eventually I needed something that could handle an even slower breathing pace. So I found a metronome app called Metronome Beats and programmed it to fit the rate of breathing that brought me the best results. One day I woke up with an awful migraine headache and I found that when I had completed my breathing practice, my migraine was almost gone. Now I use this 20-minute, slow and controlled breathing exercise whenever I have a headache. This is the relaxation response at work!
Another benefit has been the effect on my blood pressure. I’d never had any issues with my blood pressure, historically it has been on the low side. But I would always be rushed when going to my doctor appointments and arrive breathless and with elevated blood pressure. I decided to ask the nurse to wait five minutes so the reading would be more accurate. For five minutes I would practice my slow breathing, and my blood pressure would return to normal. Then one day I forgot to ask for the five minute delay. So while my blood pressure was being taken I practiced the breathing, and it returned to normal, right then and there. For me, this is the reason to practice a stress reduction technique and develop the relaxation response. I can now call up this response on demand! I just have to always remember to do it when in the throes of stress.
WebMD has an overview of the uses and benefits of biofeedback here: http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/biofeedback-therapy-uses-benefits.
Here is a Youtube video about MyCalmBeat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCickT8lLHE. Available for iPhone and Android.
Breathe2Relax: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEZ1dvZuJYc. Available for iPhone and Android.
Metronome Beats: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.andymstone.metronome&hl=en.
Available for Android.
#relaxationresponse #biofeedback #breathingpractice #mycalmbeat #breathe2relax #metronomebeats
May 5, 2016 at 6:42 pm
There is so much great feedback here, Gail! Thank you for sharing. I feel freshly motivated to try some new techniques. I am going to look into a smartphone app to help with breathing. I think this is an area I could improve a bit; sometimes I feel panicked as well when I try to control my breathing. But I think the biggest take away for me from your post is about using a technique regularly and frequently enough that it can be employed easily in a pinch when needed and have an immediate impact. I think that is true for me with body scans but I never thought about it that way before. Thanks for the perspective!
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