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Chronic Pain, Relaxation Training, and a Place of Rest

September 24, 2013

We know from the psalms that believers should “rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7) and that our “flesh shall rest in hope” (Psalm 16:9). Even more emphatically, the children of Israel, who were instructed to find a resting place for the ark, were given among the basic moral commandments, another spiritual one, “but on the seventh day thou shalt rest.” They were to desist from their normal activities and daily work, in order to find the God of their heart through another way of being in the world, characterized by an active rest oriented towards God.

Those who suffer from chronic pain may be immobile a great deal of the time, but they often do not feel as though they rest or as though their bodies have found a resting place. On the contrary, they often feel tense and tension in their aching muscles and tired minds, seven days a week with no Sabbath rest. We all know by experience that our fearful anticipation of an event increases our anxiety about that event, just as looking forward to moments of calm can soothe us. In cases of chronic pain, anticipation of pain in the future coupled with the reality of pain in the present only serves to make a bad situation worse.  When we suffer pain, particularly chronic pain, muscles and nerves experience hyper-arousal, which often serves to cause more sensation and thus more pain.

A therapeutic intervention that is often used in patients experiencing chronic pain is relaxation training that aims to calm the hyperactive, tense muscles surrounding the area in which the pain is primarily located. Although the tense muscles are responding to the pain and trying to protect the vulnerable area, the tension only makes the condition worse. Hence, relaxation methods, which may be physical as well as psychological, aim to relax the muscles and thereby remove extraneous stressors that only serve to exacerbate chronic pain. Some common techniques include relaxing imagery, cue-controlled relaxation techniques, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation.

In the context of chronic pain, one of the more helpful relaxation techniques involves what is known as progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), a simple two-step procedure involving the application of pressure on the affected area and then releasing the induced tension (for more information concerning the full application of PMR, please consult: When applying any intervention technique in coping with chronic pain, it’s important to keep in mind that improvement will be gradual if the techniques are applied in a consistent, faithful fashion.  As with all attempts at making progress, expectations should be measured and appropriate given one’s circumstances. The fact that pain sufferers can perform this technique without assistance is clearly an added benefit. Before practicing PMR, consult with your physician if you have a history of serious injuries, muscle spasms, or back problems, because the deliberate muscle tensing in the PMR procedure could exacerbate any of these pre-existing conditions.

Progressive muscle relaxation can also be preceded or followed by relaxing imagery. Of course, one can envision a calm sea or listen to the waves hitting upon the shore, but as Christians, I think it is helpful and furthermore salvific to bring one’s faith into the healing process. The ancient Latin ecclesiastical writer Arnobius described the Savior as the one who “relaxed the tightened nerves” (Seven Books against the Heavens, book 1, chapter 50). Such an image and such a prayer—“Lord, help me relax my tightened nerves”—could be a powerful adjunct to PMR, even more so than taking a number of deep, cleansing breaths. Scripture is rich with such images that can calm us, relax us, and help us find rest in our bodies and above all in our souls. Simply thinking about how Christ “arose and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39) can bring peace, stillness, and a great calm to the body. Simply hearing our Lord say, “come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) can bring a rest not only to a heavy laden soul, but also to heavy laden and laboring muscles. It is not without significance, as Saint Augustine observes, that the word for pain in Greek (πόνος) is also a synonym for labor (Reply to Faustus, book 22, chapter 18). It is only right for those in pain to seek rest from the labor of pain. Relaxation techniques can certainly play a role in finding a rest that  moderates the pain. And if Christ is present in the process, the rest can become a Sabbath rest that is holy and dedicated to God, bringing restoration, refreshment, and renewal to body and soul.

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