by Heather Tick, M.D.
Guided imagery, autogenic training, biofeedback, and hypnotherapy are all techniques that can enable us to reach deep states of relaxation. It was once thought that the autonomic nervous system and things such as heart rate and blood pressure could not be voluntarily controlled. But it turns out that with proper training we can, for example, be trained to slow our heart rate and lower our blood pressure. We can dilate our peripheral blood vessels and make our cold hands warm. This type of training can also be used to control our response to pain and thereby change our experience of pain. All these techniques require practice and have increased benefits with frequent use or training.
This is usually done with a recording or a guide who talks you through the exercise. It is a form of focused attention that leads you along a path of
images, though they need not be only visual images. Some people can see images in their imagination, and others prefer to imagine hearing things, feeling things, or tasting things. It is generally relaxing and often involves mentally going to a safe place of your own choosing. There are many guided-imagery CDs and MP3s on the market. I am going to give you an example of taste imagery. It is best if you have someone read it to you while you are sitting comfortably with your eyes closed.
Imagine you are in a kitchen. Food is cooking quietly on the stove. You go over to the refrigerator and take out a plump, juicy lemon. You hold it in your hand, feeling the coolness. You put it close to your nose and get a faint aroma of lemon through the intact peel. You go over to the counter and take out a cutting board, and with a knife you cut the lemon in half. Some of the juice has spurted out and the aroma of lemon is strong. You see the beads of juice on the cut surface. Then you cut each half again so the lemon is in quarters, and you notice where a seed has been cut through. You pick up one of the quarters and hold it close to your nose and appreciate the lemony smell, then you bring the lemon to your mouth and bite into it.
Are you salivating yet? This is an example of how a mere image in your mind can change your body function. There is no real lemon there, but most people will salivate as if there were.
Autogenic training is another relaxation technique that helps you to reduce the effects of stress in your body by taking you through a series of images and affirmations. Mostly the statements address the symptoms of stress and aim at helping you achieve relaxation. There are tapes and therapists who can help with this practice. The scripts vary, but they go something like this.
Sit or lie down comfortably. Make sure you are not cold. Repeat each of the following statements three times and try to feel, in your body, the sensation suggested by the words.
I am completely calm.
My arms feel heavy and warm.
My legs feel heavy and warm.
My heartbeat is calm and regular.
My breathing is calm and regular.
My abdomen is warm and comfortable.
My forehead is pleasantly cool.
My neck and shoulders are heavy and warm.
I am at peace.
Biofeedback, another relaxation technique, has traditionally used electronic instruments, such as blood pressure monitors and galvanic skin response meters, to aid in the training, but something as simple as biodots, small temperature-sensitive discs applied to the hands, can teach some of the same principles. People can learn to control specific functions; for example, they can increase their blood flow and relieve muscle tension and even migraine headaches.
Hypnotherapy is a way to focus attention and achieve a state of deep relaxation. Some people fear hypnosis because they remember the nightclub acts where it seemed that people could be made to do things they would not normally do. Unlike in extremes of brainwashing, as seen in spy movies, you are in control when you are hypnotized. Hypnotherapy is often used for pain relief in childbirth and with headaches and other conditions as well.
Humor is a great way to de-stress. People have used humor in tragic theater since the Greek chorus in ancient times. Shakespeare made comic relief a regular part of his tragedies. Comedy helps us cope with the catastrophic. Laughter is infectious, and brain and body chemistry change in response to humor. There is now laughter yoga, which uses nonverbal exercises. Most participants start out pretending to laugh along with the program and usually end up in genuine fits of laughter. Laughter causes some of the same physiological changes as exercise and helps balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
Some research from Norway indicates that humor may prolong life. Norman Cousins, in the autobiographical Anatomy of an Illness, explains how humor was his best distraction from pain and helped him recover from a debilitating disease that his doctors had not expected him to survive. In his book, he lists funny lines from newspaper want ads that his friends collected for him. No matter how many times I read them, I am in hysterics. Loretta Laroche and Patch Adams, M.D., are health care professionals who have turned to laughter and humor in medical settings, and there is an entire program for medical clowns in Israel called the Dream Doctors. The Dream Doctors program is a three-year course to train medical clowns who have become part of the pediatric hospitals around the country. They are developing a graduate program as well. Patients and health care personnel state that the Dream Doctors reduce stress and help the children through traumatic and painful events. Look at someone who is frowning, then look at someone who has even a little smile. Does it feel different for you? Who would you rather be faced with? Remember you have that effect on others when you smile.
Dr. Heather Tick is the author of Holistic Pain Relief and has been an integrative medical practitioner for over 20 years. A sought-after speaker, she lives in Seattle and works at the University of Washington, where she is the first Gunn-Loke Endowed Professor for Integrative Pain Medicine. Visit her online at heathertickmd.com.
Adapted from the book Holistic Pain Relief ©2013 by Dr. Heather Tick. Published with permission of New World Library.