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Using relaxation to help with chronic pain.

Being in pain is often a stressful experience, even if you consider yourself a person that doesn’t usually have a problem with stress. Pain can cause changes to your muscle tension, your breathing pattern, your heart rate and your blood pressure without you really being aware of it. Pain can also significantly alter your mood and interrupt your concentration. These physical and mental effects can increase your pain levels and also increase the distress you experience.

Improving your ability to relax can be useful in managing your pain. There are many ways that people relax and unwind. You might already be able to relax successfully by reading, watching TV, taking a bath, listening to music or going for a quiet walk, for instance, and if what you do is working well, then just keep on doing it! 

However, being able to relax is easier said than done. So you may find it useful to perform a body scan relaxation exercise like the one written below. If you like, you can read out the text and record it on to your phone so you can play it to yourself, rather than reading it out each time. At first you may need a quiet location and comfortable surroundings to do it (we recommend that you sit or lie down to practice it initially) but in time you can learn to use it in more demanding and stressful situations. For instance you can start to notice that you might be clenching your jaw while you are stuck in traffic. Or that you are holding your shoulders tightly while you load the dishwasher. Like many other skills the more you practise, the better you will get at it. 

Helpful Tips

  • Try to establish a regular practice – often sticking to the same time and place each day is really helpful in getting off to a good start. Just allowing yourself to bring your attention to the sensations in your body on a regular basis can bring benefits over time. Don’t expect it to work like magic! 
  • Be realistic that relaxation is not a cure for pain but it can help you cope better with it. Also be aware that sometimes you will find it more helpful than at other times, so don’t get frustrated or try to force yourself to relax.  

Body scan exercise

Start by sitting or lying down in as comfortable position as possible. Have your eyes closed or alternatively open with your gaze softly focused in front of you.

  1. Bring your attention to the contact of your body on the surfaces that are supporting it, such as your feet on the floor, and your back and legs on the floor or chair.
  2. Listen to the sounds inside and outside of the room you are in.
  3. Notice if you are aware of the sense of smell – can you smell anything at the moment?
  4. Also the sense of taste – is there a taste in your mouth at present? 
  5. Notice the contact of your clothes on your skin.
  6. Become aware of the sensations on the surface of your body. Slowly, scan down from the top of your head, into your forehead and face and down the rest of your body to your feet. If you notice that there is tension in any part of your body, you may choose to try to gently let go of it. Sometimes, imagining the tension leaving your body as you gently exhale helps to release this tension. However, don’t get upset or agitated if you find this difficult. Just accept that it is very often not easy to let go of pain and tension and just move on to scanning the next part of your body. 
  7. As you scan down, become aware of your breath entering and leaving your body. Where do you notice it most? What is the quality of your breathing? If it feels comfortable you might decide to try a couple of deeper breaths if it feels good. But don’t try to change it too much. Just allow your breath to move itself without forcing it.
  8. As you continue with your body scan, re-connect with your breath from time to time, particularly if you become distracted. It is inevitable that you will frequently become distracted during this exercise. This is ok.
  9. Once you have completed your body scan, bring your attention to an area of your body that feels relaxed and pleasant. If this is hard to find, pick an area that at least feels neutral. Spend some time exploring the sensations in this area. Notice what thoughts and feelings come up as you do this.
  10. Now choose an area that is not so comfortable. To start with, don’t choose the most painful area you can find, just one with some discomfort in. Again, spend some time exploring the sensations in this area. Notice what thoughts and feelings come up as you do this. Be aware particularly of the tendency to resist any unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations. See if you can allow yourself to spend a few moments in this part of the exercise just allowing things to be as they are. You can always stop doing this if you find it too unpleasant.
  11. Gently return your attention to your breathing. 
  12. Finish by returning to notice the sights, smells, and tastes around you as you bring your attention back to your body in your sitting or lying down position.

You can do this exercise for as long or as short a time as you like. We suggest doing it for a short periods at first (less than 5 minutes) and then gradually building up the amount of time you spend with it, if you find it helpful.