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The relaxation response
When humans face a threat, our bodies respond through the fight or flight response. The body gets ready for action—literally, either ready to fight or ready to run to safety—by bringing extra blood flow to the muscles, raising heart rate and blood pressure, and increasing muscle tension for speed and strength. Like the body’s response to pain, the fight or flight response was intended for rare moments of extreme need to help you survive danger. The body was not meant to be this way all of the time. Most importantly, while these changes are helpful for our survival from a life or death threat, they have consequences to our physical and emotional well-being if they persist for a long period of time. This includes making our pain, fatigue, and stress worse.
One of the most effective tools for managing pain, fatigue, and other symptoms is to learn how to stop or calm the fight or flight response. Ongoing MS symptoms do not need to be met by this alarm-type response. If we can calm ourselves, we can also calm our nervous system, reduce our stress, and give ourselves a chance to find other ways to cope with our pain, fatigue, and other symptoms.
We calm our system through relaxation strategies. A state of relaxation is the opposite of the “fight-or-flight response” and changes how you deal, emotionally and physically, with stress. Relaxation is a very effective tool for managing several common MS symptoms, including pain, fatigue, sleep, stress, and depressed mood.
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For example, relaxation is helpful for pain because:
Tense muscles make pain worse. Your body naturally protects itself by tensing muscles around an area that hurts or needs to be protected. When your muscles are tense for too long, your pain may increase. Relaxation helps decrease this muscle tension that occurs when feeling pain
Relaxation is also a way to counter the well-known negative effects stress has on pain and other physical problems (counteracts the “fight-or-flight response”)
Relaxation also has a beneficial effect on the areas of the brain that are involved in sensing and reducing pain
Relaxation can also be helpful for other symptoms because:
It is common to feel tense when you feel depressed or anxious. Relaxation helps decrease physical and mental tension that can make depression and anxiety worse
Relaxation can help you sleep better
Relaxation is a good way to take a break or “time-out” from stressful situations or emotions. It is a helpful activity you can do to take care of yourself
People are usually better at planning and problem solving when they feel relaxed compared to when they feel stressed
I try to relax, but it doesn’t seem to help.
Do you still feel tense even after trying to relax? Restful activities such as lying on the couch or watching TV may not trigger the relaxation response. The relaxation response occurs when you teach your body how to relax more fully and on command by using active relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing. As you practice these techniques, they will become more natural and help you reach a calming state of relaxation. Use the Relaxation Worksheet to help you in this process.
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With regular practice, relaxation skills may help you:
Lessen your symptoms, such as pain or stress
Raise your energy level
Ease your stress
Manage your emotional responses, such as anger or anxiety
In this module you will learn how to:
Achieve the relaxation response
Overcome barriers and challenges to practicing relaxation exercises
Utilize relaxation exercises in your daily life and MS symptom management
Relaxation: Achieving the relaxation response
A good relaxation exercise is one that you enjoy and will do regularly. My MS Toolkit offers you several different relaxation exercises to try:
Progressive muscle relaxation
You can learn and practice any or all of these relaxation exercises so that by the end of the program, you will have found one or two that you can use regularly in the future to help manage your MS symptoms.
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Deep breathing exercise (4-5 minutes):
• Also sometimes called belly breathing or controlled breathing
• Focuses on your breathing to help you relax
• One of the easiest and most effective relaxation skills
• Allows us to breathe more deeply