Using Relaxation for Pain – Continued

~ By Patricia Kay Youngson ~

Why does relaxation help with pain? Because we are less likely to feel pain when the body is enjoying pleasant relaxation and letting go of tension and stress. Relaxation activates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This lowers blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension. This is the opposite of the effect of our sympathetic (flight/ fight/ freeze) nervous system.

When we talk about the relaxing part of the nervous system, we need to mention the vagal nerve. The vagal (or vagus) nerve runs from the brain way down to the intestines and is in command of the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is also responsible for our “gut feelings”. In order for us to have a good relaxation response the vagal nerve needs to have good vagal tone. You can increase the vagal tone or healthy functioning of the vagal nerve through deep breathing, singing, exercise, yoga, tai chi, chi kung, loving relationships, and meditation. It also helps to avoid anxiety provoking situations and anxious people.

Speaking of anxiety, relaxation helps counteract anxiety. And as you know, pain not only makes us anxious, but anxiety increases pain–a vicious cycle. Besides increasing anxiety pain tenses our muscles, decreasing the blood flow to the whole body, especially the area of pain.

Relaxation also decreases the stress hormones (which increase pain) and at the same time allows your body’s own pain killers, the endorphins, to flow.

As mentioned, breathing is one of the keys to developing good vagal tone. Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing in particular will help relieve tension in your muscles and relax your mind. It is helplful to practice diaphragmatic breathing every day until it becomes a habit. The diaphragm is a muscle that separates the abdominal cavity from the lungs. When it is relaxed it is like an upside down bowl and when we contract it with the inhale, it flattens out, drawing oxygen into the lungs. Since it is moving down into the abdominal cavity, the abdomen moves out. You are doing it right when your abdomen comes out with each inhale, instead of mostly using your chest muscles.

To practice belly breathing you can imagine you have a balloon in your body that extends from your lower abdomen to your throat. Inhale while sticking out your abdomen and fill that balloon all the way up to your throat. You can get the same effect by inhaling while your abdomen is totally relaxed and bringing the air up into your chest. You could practice this while lying down ten to twenty minutes a day.

The relaxation response (parasympathetic response) is stimulated even more when the exhale is longer than the inhale. So you could inhale for two counts and exhale for four counts. Doing this with an affirmation is even more effective, i.e. “I am filled with (two counts) peace, tranquility, and divine love (four counts).” Or you could use an affirmation of your choice.

It can also help to breathe into the painful area thinking “Relax” and breathe the pain out, while thinking “Out”.

Meditation is another way to relax. One way to do this is to sit or lie down comfortably with your spine straight and breathe in and out through your nose. When you breathe out think “Let go.” Do this 5 to 20 minutes once or twice daily. When a distracting thought comes up, note it and return to your breathing.

Another relaxing technique is voo breathing. You take a deep breath in and on the exhale tone “Voo” so that it resonates deeply in your belly stimulating the vagus nerve. Do this several times until you are feeling more relaxed and comfortable. If you prefer you can use “Om” instead.

The “tension spotter” can also help. Stop whatever you are doing and scan your body for tension While breathing slowly, evenly, and deeply consciously relax each part of your body where you find tension.

Finally, you can use a HeartMath technique. Breathe slowly in and out imagining that you are breathing through your heart. Think of someone or something for which you are grateful or that you love.

Most of these techniques come from “Reversing Chronic Pain” by Maggie Phillips (2007). This is a book I highly recommend.

Patricia Kay Youngson

Patricia Kay Youngson

Patricia Kay Youngson, RN is a counselor who specializes in helping people with chronic pain. Website:, e-mail:

“May I walk through this day in peace and well being.
May I walk through this day in love and joy.”

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