We've discussed how the brain can produce a pain experience when it perceives a threat. Threatening inputs, memories and circumstances can also lead to a stress response, which many in turn worsen your pain. Today we'll talk about how relaxation brings pain relief – but first, what is stress?
We've all heard the expression 'fight or flight'. This is how the body has evolved to respond to any threatening situation. In times of stress the body uses a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol turns on process we need for survival and switches off process that are not needed for survival. What do you need if a tiger is chasing you? Muscles – to fight or run away and your brain – for quick thinking! What don't you need if a tiger is chasing you? Reproduction and digestion. Healing can probably also be put on hold.
So as you can see, this stress response is great in an emergency, but what if that tiger follows you around for a year and you're stressed all the time? Prolonged elevated cortisol levels have been linked to depression, mood swings, memory changes, poor healing, weight gain and immune problems.
So you can see that if your pain is making you stressed, your stress can make things much worse, including the pain itself.
On the flip side, when you're relaxed and feeling good, your body produces 'happy hormones' such as such as opioids and serotonin that block danger messages travelling up the nerves to your brain. We know that they're 60 times more powerful than the strongest pain-relieving drug on the market. A lovely 'soup' for your brain and nerves to float around in.
So how do you de-stress. For a start, stop worrying about the pain. This makes a lot of sense now you know that worrying about your pain is scientifically proven to make it worse. Yoga, relaxation, meditation and breathing techniques have also been proven to reduce the level of circulating stress hormones and increase your level of happy hormones. Try going for a walk, listening to relaxing music, or just clearing your mind for twenty minutes every day.
Another technique is to set aside 'worry time'. Rather than worrying about things constantly (and keeping your Cortisol levels elevated) make a specific time every week when you think about your worries. If a worry enters your head at another time, like when you're trying to fall asleep, set it aside for your 'worry time'.
So remember - relax and feel less pain.