Those of us with fibromyalgia know that stress is a major trigger of symptom flare-ups. Stress-related flares sneak up on us and it’s been my experience they last the longest. Although no one can avoid all stress, we can counteract it by learning how to activate the body’s natural relaxation response. The relaxation response puts the brakes on stress and brings your body and mind back into balance.
We know that increased activation of the fight or flight stress response is present in fibromyalgia. Some experts believe that most (if not all) of the symptoms of fibromyalgia stem from abnormal activation of the fight-or-flight nervous system.
In my last post, I wrote about the overactive fight or flight response in fibromyalgia and that it is linked to a dysfunctional autonomic nervous system. This post is about producing the relaxation response and tips to find the right technique for you.
Producing The Relaxation Response
To turn off the fight or flight response, we need to activate the relaxation response. The relaxation response is a term coined in 1975 by Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. Dr. Benson describes the relaxation response as a physical state of deep relaxation which engages the parasympathetic nervous system.
By engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system shuts off since they cannot both be active at the same time.
The relaxation response is a mentally active process that leaves your body calm and focused. A variety of relaxation techniques can be used to produce the relaxation response. Techniques such deep breathing, meditation, rhythmic exercises and yoga can help bring your nervous system back into balance by producing the relaxation response.
Research has shown that regular use of the “relaxation response” can help any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, hypertension, anxiety disorders, and many others.
Finding The Relaxation Technique That’s Best For You
There is no relaxation technique that is best for everyone. When choosing a relaxation technique, consider your specific needs, preferences, fitness and the way you tend to react to stress. The right relaxation technique is the one that resonates with you and fits your lifestyle. The right technique enables you to focus your mind and interrupt your everyday thoughts in order to elicit the relaxation response.
How you react to stress may influence the relaxation technique that works best for you:
- The “fight” response – If you tend to become angry, agitated or keyed up under stress, you may respond best to stress relief techniques that quiet you down, such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing or guided imagery.
- The “flight: response – If you tend to become depressed, withdrawn or spaced out when under stress, you will likely respond best to stress relief activities that are stimulating, such as rhythmic exercise, massage, mindfulness or yoga.
- The “freeze” response – If you have experienced some type of trauma and tend to become stuck when under stress, you need to first arouse your nervous system to a fight or flight response so you can employ the applicable stress relief activities. To do this, choose a physical activity that engages both your arms and legs, such as power walking or tai chi. Perform the activity mindfully, focusing on the sensations in your limbs as you move.
You may find that alternating or combining different relaxation techniques will keep you motivated and provide you with the best results.
Making Relaxation Techniques A Part Of Your Life
The best way to start and maintain a relaxation practice is to incorporate it into your daily routine. You should set aside at least 10 to 20 minutes per day for your relaxation process. For even more stress relief aim for 30 minutes or more. Many of the techniques can be practiced while doing other things.
You can practice mindfulness and deep breathing while doing household tasks, walking your dog or any number of things. At least once a day, sometimes twice I use a foam roller and do stretching exercises. I can practice deep breathing, mindfulness, and/or visualization meditation at the same time.
Other tips for making relaxation techniques part of your life:
- Schedule a set time each day – If possible, set aside one or two periods each day to practice your relaxation techniques.
- Adopt mindfulness to improve the relaxation benefits – Whether you take a walk, practice yoga, tai chi or any other exercise, focus your attention on your body. Focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements and pay attention to how your body feels as you move.
- Don’t get discouraged – If you skip a few days or even a few weeks, don’t get discouraged. It happens. Just get started again and slowly build up.
It is usually recommended to avoid practicing when you are sleepy because you get the most benefit when you are fully awake and alert. Some techniques can relax you so much you feel sleepy especially if it is close to bedtime. But, this may be a benefit in itself when you have the sleeping problems with fibromyalgia. Relaxing right before bed or even when you get into bed, may help you sleep better.
Relaxation Techniques To Try
In general, relaxation techniques involve refocusing your attention on something calming and increasing awareness of your body. Relaxation techniques take practice. The more you practice, the more aware you’ll become of muscle tension and other physical sensations of stress. Then you can make a conscious effort to practice a relaxation technique the moment you start to feel stress symptoms.
The following relaxation techniques were recommended to me by my cognitive behavioral therapist:
- Breathing Meditation
- Mindful Mediataion
- Body Scan Meditation
- Visual Imagery Meditaion
- Movement Meditation
- Massage Therapy
The first technique to learn is deep breathing meditation. It is easy to learn and can be practiced almost anywhere. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation techniques, too.
Check out this post: AN INTRODUCTION TO TAPPING (EFT) by Donna on her blog FebuaryStars. Tapping, also known as Emotional Freedom Techniques is like an emotional version of acupuncture and involves tapping on certain meridian points on the body.