With illnesses like ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia it can be very difficult to relax. One of the illness mechanisms seems to be an overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and an inability to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is often a lot worse if we’ve over-done it in any way. It can be extremely frustrating to know that you need to relax in order to get over doing too much but find it practically impossible to do so.
Many of us try very hard to practice relaxation and meditation skills in the knowledge that engaging the parasympathetic nervous system will give our body the best chance to heal itself. Sometimes, however, this becomes counterproductive. If lack of success leads to frustration we just add further stimulation to the sympathetic nervous system!
In these cases my advice is always give up on trying to relax and distract yourself instead, with a calming single-pointed focus activity. The right kind of distraction can help lower your level of stimulation, possibly even to a level where relaxation (with a non-judgemental accepting attitude) becomes possible again.
The main reason that this works, is that it will stop you feeding back into the stimulation with worries about the symptoms you’re experiencing or frustration at your inability to relax. This kind of distraction needs to engage you enough to stop you thinking about other things, but needs to be calming enough to allow your stimulation levels to drop. I find doing a relatively easy Sudoku works for me, I deliberately aim to do it slowly too, and don’t allow myself to write in more than one number before taking another breath. Other people might find crosswords, colouring, audiobooks, or reading short articles in a magazine do the trick. The most important thing is that the activity engages without excitement or frustration.
It’s also important to value what you are getting out of the activity. You may not be getting the full benefits of quality relaxation, but if that’s just not available to you right in this moment at least you are able to take control of reducing your SNS stimulation and this is very valuable. Interrupting the loop of stimulation; stopping symptoms perpetuating is the most valuable thing you can do in this moment! It will be impossible to engage your PNS until your SNS stimulation reaches a low enough level, so there’s no point in even trying if it’s too high!
So remember, if your meditation or relaxation practices just aren’t working for you today; you just can’t seem to calm your mind; you’re feeling that annoying buzz of adrenaline that you just can’t let go of; or you can’t sleep and are feeling overstimulated, find a calming single pointed focus distraction. You can always try again to relax a little later!
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