How to Relax for Chronic Pain Management

Stress and anxiety can exacerbate pain. This can start a vicious cycle, as intense feelings of pain tend to cause even more stress and anxiety. Learning to relax can help.

Older woman laying on a couch using a tablet
Hero Images / Getty Images

Relaxation techniques won't cure you of chronic pain, but they can help you get it under control. Relaxation helps muscles release and breathing and heart rate to slow down. It allows the mind to become calm and to focus elsewhere. In other words, it becomes distracted from pain sensations.

Scientists theorize that things in our environment compete for the brain's attention. Essentially, the brain can only focus on a certain amount of input at once. Focusing on sensations other than tension and pain, or even introducing new sensations, can "close the gate" to pain. The pain doesn't go away, it just drops into the background. De-stress and counteract the downward pain spiral with these eight relaxation tips.

Breathe Deeply

Deep breathing helps with relaxation by slowing everything down. To try it, inhale completely; hold it for a few seconds, and then exhale. Do this a few times. Close your eyes. Concentrate on the sound of your breath, and try to slow it down.

Divert Your Attention

Thinking about something other than your stress or your pain can help you feel better. Guided imagery takes us to a happy place, but you don’t need to take a 30-minute journey to get there. When you feel stressed, stop what you are doing and picture yourself doing something relaxing, like taking a bath, swimming in the ocean or resting on a hammock. Imagine the scene as vividly as you can. Go there anytime you need to “escape.”

Sing a Song

Singing helps release tension. Try singing a song that makes you happy at the top of your lungs (this works especially well in the car). If you can’t belt it out where you are, simply humming a few bars of your favorite tune has been found to help relieve stress.

Walk Away

Feeling stressed in your cubicle? Spouse irritating you? Take a little walk. Sometimes taking a short break from a tense environment is all you need to avoid stress taking a toll and making your pain feel worse. Grab a glass of water or get some fresh air. Count to ten if you need to. Then, return feeling refreshed and a little calmer.

Take a Yoga Class

Practicing yoga regularly has several benefits. First, it gives you an uninterrupted relaxation session that may last up to an hour or two. Second, it teaches you breathing techniques that you can use to calm yourself in your daily life. It also increases strength and flexibility, which has pain-relieving benefits. To start, try taking a beginner’s yoga class once a week.

Treat Yourself to a Massage

Having a massage every few weeks is a great way to reduce muscle tension and get pampered at the same time. Massage helps relax the mind and body, and a skilled massage therapist can find your problem spots and get them under control. Often combined with aromatherapy and meditation, a massage is a wonderful way to melt your stress away and can help with some forms of chronic pain.

Get Your Om On

Meditation in its purest form involves focusing on one thing to clear your mind. Usually done in a quiet room, it calms the mind and the body — and can get your mind off your pain. Meditation sounds easier than it is, however, and distraction is usually a problem for beginners. Try following a recorded guided meditation, or seek the guidance of an experienced meditation teacher.

Go on a Date

When you're in pain, the last thing you want to do is leave the house. But taking the time to connect with people outside of your usual routine can help reduce stress. Try making a regular date with friends or your spouse for some unwind time. Go out for coffee, see a movie or even take a long walk in the park if you're able. Once you make your date, do whatever it takes not to break it.

Finding What Works for You

Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of your healthcare provider. In some cases, he or she may recommend counseling to get your stress under control. In more serious cases, anti-anxiety medication may be necessary to allow the mind and body time to recover.

Finding ways to relax helps get your physical and mental state under better control, helping to get your pain to a level where you can cope, too. You may need to try a few different things to find what combination works best for you.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Treatment Options: A Guide for People Living with Pain. American Pain Foundation.

  • Johnson, Malcolm H. "How Does Distraction Work in the Management of Pain?" Current Pain and Headache Reports. 9:2, March 2005 pp 90-95

By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.