A week or so before Christmas I was approached by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and yoga teacher at Stanford University, and the editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is also a former chronic pain sufferer who wanted to get the message out about how yoga can improve your health and happiness on as many blogs as possible in celebration of the publication of her book Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Chronic Pain. Of course as a fibromyalgic yogini I jumped at the chance for some wise words on a subject so close to my heart.
Kelly is kindly sending me a copy of the book - which I will review when I have read it. Unfortunately it is not available in the UK yet but you can pre-order it here or order from the US here.
So without further ado let's hear from Kelly about Fibromyalgia and Yoga.
Most people think that yoga is about standing on your head, reaching your toes, and getting twisted into pretzel poses. But the healing practices of yoga go far beyond the postures. The breathing, meditation and relaxation practices of yoga may have the most powerto help people with chronic pain, including fibromyalgia. Below, some of the science and promise behind how yoga can help:
1. People with fibromyalgia appear to process pain differently than people with other forms of chronic pain, including musculoskeletalpain and headaches. As anyone with fibromyalgia knows, they are more sensitive to physical stimulation. The pain detectors of the nervous system can become so sensitive that they react to any sign of increased pressure, tension, or inflammation in the body. But research suggests they are also more affected by negative emotions. For people with fibromyalgia, emotional distress increases the nervous system’s sensitivity to pain more than it does for people with other types of chronic pain.
This may sound like bad news, but it also means that learning how to handle negative emotions can have a significant positive effect on your pain. Many meditation techniques teach you how to accept and then move through negative emotions, and how to consciously choose to feel positive emotions like gratitude and joy.
2. Catastrophizing, telling yourself that your pain is unbearable, uncontrollable, and likely to get worse, makes the brain more sensitive to both the physical sensations and emotion suffering components of pain. This has been shown specifically in people with fibromyalgia, as well as other forms of chronic pain. Strengthening your belief that you can handle your symptoms can make your pain more manageable.
This may be one reason that guided imagery and relaxation can reduce pain in people with fibromyalgia. Research supports three types of imagery: imagining yourself in a favorite, safe place; body awareness and conscious muscle relaxation; imagining yourself engaged in an activity that pain/fatigue have made difficult. Imagery and relaxation may help make the brain less reactive to pain, which can make sensations more tolerable and reduce the anxiety, sadness, and anger that can go along with pain. Other yoga practices may have a similar effect, for example, research shows that simply paying attention to the sensations of breathing can reduce stress, increase a sense ofcontrol, and make pain more tolerable.
3. Physical pain and social pain, such as loneliness or rejection, are detected by the same pain systems of the brain. The experience of either one can make you more sensitive to the other. This may be why a pain episode makes you feel more socially isolated or why you crave social support when you are in pain. It also may explain why loneliness makes physical pain worse, but having a loved one present can reduce pain. Research shows that social support decreases pain sensitivity in people with fibromyalgia specifically. It’s not possible to have round-the-clock closeness with others, but a yoga meditation on social connection can have a similar effect. For example, one study showed that daily loving kindness meditation practice significantly reduced chronic pain.
4. In one unusual study, researchers in Japan tested a master yogi who claimed to be able to block all pain during meditation. The researchers used a laser to create a pain response in the yogi, both before and during meditation. Brain imaging revealed normal pain processing when the yogi was not meditating. During meditation, however, there was dramatically reduced activity in all the areas associated with a pain response, including the areas that produce pain sensations, thoughts and emotions about pain, and the stress response. Although most of us will never become master yogis, this study demonstrates the full potential of meditation for changing your experience of pain.
5. The yoga tradition has long recognized that your breathing reflects the state of your mind and body. When the body and mind are disturbed by fear, anger, sadness, illness, or pain, the breath becomes disturbed. But the road goes both ways: how you breathe can also influence how you feel. This was elegantly demonstrated in a study that observed how the breath naturally changes during joy, anger,sadness, and fear. The researchers induced these emotions in participants and measured changes in breathing rate, depth, movement,and tension. Joy, for example, was associated with steady, smooth, slow, deep, and relaxed breathing. Sadness, in contrast, was associated with irregular, shallow, and tense breathing interrupted with sighs and tremors.
In a second study, the researchers turned the observations for each emotion into breathing instructions. They had participants change their breathing according to those instructions, with no hint that the breathing patterns were connected to specific emotions. The breathing patterns reliably created the emotions they were associated with,without any other emotion cue or trigger.
Yoga can teach you to breathe in a way that supports feelings of comfort, safety, and joy.
Thank you so much Kelly, there is a lot there I can empathise with. I could wax lyrical on how much yoga has helped me in all these ways, but I think we all know that by now right?!!