This may sound simple. However, prioritizing your comfort and withholding judgmental thoughts that may stand in the way of focusing on yourself are often difficult to do. It may help to remember that investing in self-care can enhance your comfort, attitude and abilities. When you find strategies that work, consider ways to incorporate them into your life.

Below are a sampling of strategies that promote relaxation and well-being and can reduce pain. Most are easy and accessible. Try them out. Track their effectiveness. What soothes one person may work less well for another. For example, not all conditions react well to heat. See what helps you, and speak with your doctor as needed.

Temperatures

HEAT is a natural analgesic; its relief can be instant. If you benefit from heat, welcome it into your daily life.

LOOK TO YOUR BATHROOM AS A HOME SPA. Warm showers can lure an aching body from a cozy bed. The promise of a hot evening bath can also ease the day. When bathing, be mindful of the soothing sensation. Allow yourself to linger and soak up the benefits. An inflatable bath pillow or soft foam placed beneath your body may make you more comfortable.

Heat relaxes muscles, which prepares them for stretching. While your muscles are warm, try stretching or gently massaging with lotion or oil. Raising the temperature of your hot water heater or bathroom air temperature can prolong your exposure to the warmth. Scented bath salts or peaceful music can increase the pampering effects.

SPA ALTERNATIVES. If you crave additional water therapy, consider upgrading your bathtub to a whirlpool bath. Other options include gyms, spas, or physical therapists that offer a hot tub or a dry or steamy sauna, with ample room for stretching and movement. Hydromassage units, a fairly new option, offer the experience of hot water and jets, while you remain dry and fully clothed. These units, located in health clubs and shopping malls, look like tanning beds (you lie down inside and the clamshell top lowers on you), with heated water massaging you from inside the plastic casing. Home versions of hot tubs, saunas and even hydromassage units are available.

MICROWAVABLE HEAT SACKS. Heat sacks provide heat that conforms to the contours of your body and can be used anywhere with microwave access. Consider making or buying several, as they are easy to travel with and can be used at home, in the car, at the office and more. See sidebar for instructions.

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WATER BOTTLES. For those too young to recall, water bottles are actually rubber bags — traditionally red — that hold hot water. These are still available in drugstores. Newer versions come with alternative materials, sizes and shapes, and offer covers. Among these is a pillowcase-sized water bag that can heat your entire torso. These are typically made of thin clear plastic and fold for easy transport. Because water bottles, like heat sacks, cool over time, they are safe for napping (as long as the plug is secure).

ELECTRICHEAT. Most newer heating pads have automatic shutoff features and adjustable temperature settings; some offer moist heat. They offer constant heat and can be applied in any position or strapped to a chair back. Car versions heat the car seat and back and offer options such as zoned heat and massaging vibrations. Other therapeutic heat options include battery-powered heated products like lumbar cushions, blankets, neck/shoulder massagers, folding chairs, hammocks, gloves, socks and slippers.

SINGLE-USE HEAT PACKS. Single-use products provide heat for several hours. These include therapeutic wraps that go around parts of your body, stick-on pads that fit discretely under clothing, and small packs you can fit in a pocket, all handy for excursions.

TOPICAL CREAMS. Over-the-countercreams, particularly those with pep-per (capsicum) oil, can provide a similar feeling of heat. Ask your health care provider or pharmacist for assistance.

COLD can function as a local anesthetic, numbing sore tissue and slowing nerve impulses. If you find cold soothing, there are several ways to use it.

ICE/COLD PACKS. Create a cold pack using a bag of ice or frozen vegetables, or by freezing a damp hand towel for 15 minutes. Commercial items include gel packs, which retain the cold, and hot/cold packs, which can be used in the freezer or heated in the microwave or hot water. Specialty products include wraps for specific joints (popular among athletes) and circular packs that conform to breasts.

ICE MASSAGE can numb an area.

     • Freeze water in a disposable foam cup.

     • Peel back the cup top an inch or two to expose the ice surface.

     • Rub the ice over the affected area (or have someone help you) for five minutes.         Keep the ice in constant motion to prevent frostbite.

Touch

MASSAGE THERAPY. Research shows therapeutic massage not only releases taut muscles, eases spasms and increases circulation, but it also lowers cortisol (stress hormone) and boosts serotonin and dopamine (feel-good hormones). Therapeutic massage has become more popular and accessible in recent years. The types range from effleurage (a very gentle touch) to deep-tissue work. As described in Paintracking, individuals can experiment with which massage type works best.

SELF-MASSAGE. A gentle neck, hand or foot rub— perhaps after a shower or during a work break — can be restorative. Be careful not to aggravate one side of your body while attempting to aid the other. Try massaging painful areas to see if touch is helpful. Caressing your hand or using a soft cloth on your cheek and ear, for example, may produce a relaxing effect.

Massage tools range from home remedies, such as leaning into carefully placed tennis balls, to extravagant lounge chairs with a built-in massager. Commercially available products can be categorized as follows:

ELECTRIC MASSAGE MACHINES. These devices, sometimes called shiatsu massagers, have rotating balls that simulate the kneading motion of massaging hands. These can be freestanding or built into chairs and often allow for adjustments in pressure, speed, placement and direction.

MASSAGE MATS. These tend to be long mats on which you can lie down or can attach to the back of your chair/car seat and enjoy pressure, heat, and/or vibration.

POKERS. These devices, which come in assorted sizes and designs, are crafted to apply pressure to specific spots.

ROLLERS. These devices include wooden, metal or plastic balls that you can rub over sore spots. One-handed rollers focus on a small area. Products that require two hands are pulled and pushed in a motion akin to drying one’s back with a towel. Hands-free options exist, including electric versions with vibration.

INTIMACY AND TOUCH. When you are hurting, it may feel instinctive to avoid intimacy and touch. Science, however, supports its benefits. Hugs, petting your cat or gently applying lotion to your body are all sensual experiences that can release oxytocin (the bonding hormone), which promotes a sense of calm and well-being and reduces stress(measured by blood pressure and cortisol) and activate endorphins and enkepha-lines (the body’s natural painkillers).

Techniques (for Relaxation)

Research has shown that the daily practice of relaxation provides health benefits, including decreasing symptoms of chronic pain, sleep difficulties and negative emotions that worsen pain perception. Regular use of relaxation can calm the body and improve well-being.

BREATH. Our breath offers a powerful calming force. When we experience distress, our breath becomes short and shallow, which increases tension. Slowing and deepening the breath brings physiological and psychological change. One strategy to achieve deep relaxation and its associated benefits is through diaphragmatic or bellying breathing.

     • Get comfortable. Lie down, or sit in a supportive chair with your feet on the floor.

     • Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your upper chest.

     • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and fill your diaphragm. Notice your abdomen expanding, while trying to minimize        the movement of your chest.

     • Exhale slowly. Your breath should feel fairly natural and not forced.

Start with a modest goal, such as trying belly breathing for a few minutes. You can experiment with additional practices to foster mindfulness of breath:

     • Count your breath on the inhale and exhale.

     • Accompany your breath with a calming mantra or visualization.

     • Gently hold your breath between inhalation and exhalation.

     • As your mind wanders, gently and nonjudgmentally bring it back to the breath.

Breathing exercises require deliberate attention but not a great time commitment or a shift in activities; you’re breathing the entire day. With practice, slow, deep breathing can become automatic. Observing the breath is also the starting place for other relaxation techniques such as meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis, body scan, biofeedback or progressive muscle relaxation, as described in Paintracking.

BREATHING SCAN. Try this simple exercise in body awareness, intended to identify areas of tension and release them.

     • Ground yourself by taking a few slow, deep breaths.

     • Scan your body, starting from the top and moving downward, from head to toe.

     • When you encounter a tight area, breathe into it and direct a comforting sensation to that spot. You can accompany that with          gentle words such as relax or calm.

Videos are available online to guide you through body-scan relaxation. Of course it is easier to relax while sitting quietly or lying down than while standing in a supermarket line or during other potentially stressful moments. However, you can practice this anytime, anywhere. While in line, for example, you might scan your body and focus on areas with the most tension, unclenching your jaw or allowing your shoulders and neck to relax.

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SMALL SMILE. Facial expressions not only signal moods but affect them. When we hurt, we are likely to grimace or scowl, which in turn influences our experience. It would be unreasonable to force a broad or otherwise inauthentic grin. However, you might benefit from allowing your whole face and jaw to relax and then gently inducing a half-smile, like the Mona Lisa or the Buddha. Combine this with slow, deep breathing and observe the result.

LAUGHTER. Laughter releases endorphins, relaxes the body and promotes a sense of well-being. In his memoir, Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins, who suffered from a painful spinal condition (ankylosingspon dylitis), noted the pain-relieving benefits that came from ten minutes of belly laughing. Laboratory evidence has substantiated this. Intense laughter (even when faked) elicits a relaxation response and reduces stress hormones. So have fun with this! Recruit family and friends to experiment with you. Consider laugh yoga, a worldwide movement that is bringing people together to promote well-being through deep laughter.

PAINTRACKING TO RELAX

Living well with chronic pain requires a well-fortified toolbox. What works for one person may not for another. The goal is to find what works for you. Pain –tracking describes many more strategies to soothe the body, as well as strategies to quiet or distract the mind. Visit www.Paintracking.com. {PP}

Paintracking: Finding Comfort