You have probably heard that pain is influenced by many things - but did you know that stress and/or feelings of worry can make the brain send danger signals even when there is no threat? When the brain thinks we are in danger it can activate the sympathetic system, also known as our fight/flight system.
Pain, stress and the fight/flight system interact with each other. More activity of the fight/flight system can increase pain and stress. More pain and more stress can increase fight/flight activity. This can create a cycle of prolonged pain, stress and heightened activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
One of the best ways to break this cycle is by activating the parasympathetic system, also called the rest and digest system. This system lets our brain and our body know that we are okay. It calms the mind and the body down. There are many tools that can help us activate the rest and digest system. When we practice these strategies, we can train our body to react to stress, worry, and pain differently.
Remember - the best results come through consistent practice. Benefits continue to grow with weeks and months of practice.
Here are some strategies to help activate the parasympathetic system:
- Slowing down our breath signals to our brain that 'we are okay', so that our brain knows that it is time to rest.
- Start with three breaths at a time, making the exhale last up to 4-6 seconds, but not so long you run out of breath. Progress to nine breaths.
- With practice do this any time you feel more pain, more stress or in that fight/flight mode.
- This technique helps to prevent our brain from fixating on pain. The goal is to focus on each of your senses.
- One at a time, and for three easy breaths for each sense, ask yourself what you can see, smell, taste, feel, and hear in your environment.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
- This involves gently tensing an area of the body while you breathe in and relaxing it while you breathe out. Repeat this with each section of your body from your toes to your head. (feet, lower legs, upper legs, pelvis, low back, mid-back).
- PMR teaches us the difference between feeling tense and relaxed. Through practice, PMR also helps us to develop the ability to release muscle tension and engage the parasympathetic system at will, to turn down the fight/flight system.
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This blog was written by Amira Hegazi, an Occupational Therapy student at the University of Toronto.