The concept of intense and relaxation practice as a necessary therapy for the resolution of what is diagnosed as prostatitis, chronic pelvic pain syndrome, pelvic floor dysfunction among other diagnoses, may well produce a head scratch to the casual observer. What does relaxation have to do with pelvic pain? In this essay, I want to discuss why the practice of profound relaxation is essential to the healing of pelvic-floor pain.
There are, certainly, some people whose pelvic pain gets better spontaneously without doing anything. And then there are those who plug away at many, many different treatments but their pelvic pain remains. In general, however someone whose pelvic pain has become chronic and is not able to calm down in deep relaxation regularly, I think the likelihood of really recovering from pelvic-floor muscle-related pain is small. I realize this is quite a strong statement. I say it because of how I see pelvic pain from the inside after my own person al experience with pelvic pain of 22 years, my continued state of being pain free and my ongoing relaxation practice.
Why is regular quieting of the body necessary for the healing of pelvic floor related pain and dysfunction? After all, people without pelvic pain don’t need to do any kind of relaxation in order to remain pain-free – but, people without pelvic pain also don’t have sore pelvic-floor tissue that needs to heal. When you have sore, tightened pelvic muscles that are continually re-irritated by the normal functions of life (including urination, defecation, sexual activity, daily stresses, and even sitting), irritated pelvic tissue is unlikely to heal without the ongoing environment provided by the regular practice of relaxation. As I’ve discussed in other podcasts and as we discuss in our book A Headache in the Pelvis, sore pelvic tissue needs a regular sanctuary – a healing chamber, free from the activities and stresses of life that keep it from healing. In our protocol, regular relaxation, done for two-to-four hours each day in an environment that gives the natural mechanisms of the body a chance to let sore pelvic tissue heal, is necessary for the possibility of any real healing to occur.
So, how do you put the sore pelvis into a healing chamber? How do you put up a sign that says to the brain, and to the world, “Do Not Disturb” when you are suffering from prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome, pelvic floor dysfunction and related conditions? Being able to become deeply quiet and serene in the midst of a crazy world and a demanding life isn’t simple, but it is doable to the person who says, ‘however high I have to jump, I will’.
There are several steps in learning how to profoundly relax. The first is understanding that relaxation is a skill which takes ongoing practice. Like learning to play the violin or to fly an airplane, or any skill of value, you have to put the time in. There are relaxation apps, and relaxation lessons to buy, but I don’t personally think much of them. In my experience, quick fixes, simple breathing methods, and other gimmicks always wind up on the shelf. We all know that there’s no quick way to become skilled at playing the violin. In exactly the same way, there’s no quick method to being able to quiet the body and mind – especially when someone is anxious and experiencing chronic pelvic pain.
It took me years to learn. I was a student of Edmund Jacobsen, the father of relaxation therapy in the United States. He developed a method called progressive relaxation and began practicing it in the early 20th century, writing a book in 1929, later edited in 1939, called Progressive Relaxation. He was one of the first physicians to treat what we would now call “stress-related disorders” like headache, idiopathic dyspepsia, stomach and digestive problems like esophageal spasm and IBS, hypertension, back pain, and constipation. It took me many years, both at the feet of the master and then on my own after his passing, to really “get” what relaxation is and what is necessary to regularly enter its state.
We all can recall “feeling relaxed.” When we talk about being relaxed, in a way even the word trivializes the experience. In my view, being relaxed is a holy, profound state. It is a state in which life has meaning, and we enjoy things, and we have the experience of just being – being able to delight in the present, in the things that have meaning to us, in our love for others, in the food we eat… in the many things that bring us joy. In the state of real relaxation, the sense of separation between people and the world dissolves.
Relaxation isn’t about breathing exercises. It’s not about visualizing a sun-drenched desert island or some ideal home. Relaxation is about the experience of effortlessness. The idea that breathing exercises are a method of relaxation, in my view, is a misunderstanding by people who don’t know how to do it themselves. When you’ve been relaxed, I doubt you got there through breathing exercises. The sleeping child who is deeply relaxed didn’t need to do anything. Rather, relaxation is the voluntary shifting of the nervous system from sympathetic dominance to parasympathetic dominance. And what does that mean, exactly? Well, physiologically speaking, relaxation is a state in which one of the parts of the autonomic nervous system, called the parasympathetic division, is dominant – as opposed to the sympathetic division. The parasympathetic division has been called the rest-digest-recuperate aspect of the nervous system, while the sympathetic division is involved in activity, nervousness, focus, and anxiety and is often called the fight-flight aspect.
I’m going to do my best to explain how the divisions of the autonomic nervous system work and relate it to the condition that is typically diagnosed as prostatitis/CPPS or pelvic floor dysfunction. You can think of the human body as a computer that comes hard-wired from the factory with two automatic computer programs that are generally not under the owner’s control. These programs refer to the activity of either the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the nervous system. Neither is under much conscious control unless you make effort to learn to control them – which is what we do in the relaxation protocol that is a central part of our program. Generally, these two aspects of the autonomic nervous system work automatically reciprocally: when one is on, the other is off.
The activation of the sympathetic system can be thought of as what happens to a car when you press on the gas pedal, and the activation of the parasympathetic system is what happens when you take your foot off if the gas pedal. When one system is operating, the other isn’t. The balanced system is meant to preserve survival – it allows us to respond to danger, to flee, fight or freeze, or to rest, digest and rejuvenate when danger has passed. As a survival mechanism, the body postpones recuperative tasks when there’s an emergency. The parasympathetic system has to wait until it feels safe from danger before it can fully activate`. This is important.
We’re often unaware of the autonomic nervous system because it functions involuntarily and automatically. For instance, we generally don’t notice changes in the size of blood vessels or the rate of our heart, because those are automatically regulated by the nervous system. The parasympathetic division of the nervous system is the part that allows recuperation, but it has to be patient… it waits for the right time to do its work. If there’s an emergency, the parasympathetic system waits to rest, digest, or recuperate, for its immune function to fight off infection, or to do the other tasks it performs. However, you can’t postpone parasympathetic functions indefinitely. You can only ignore your body for so long without paying a price.
Back to cars… you can run your car at 100 miles per hour all day, but if you keep doing it you’ll be in for a trip to the mechanic. Arousal of the sympathetic nervous system postpones parasympathetic response, and you can’t postpone it forever without something breaking down. Chronic pelvic pain, in my view, is one consequence of ongoing parasympathetic postponement, where the normal relaxation required to heal sore, irritated pelvic-floor muscles doesn’t occur. The pelvic-pain cycle is a sequence of tension leading to anxiety, leading to a sore pelvic floor, leading to a protective guarding that causes more tension and anxiety and pain. This cycle is basically what happens when the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive and doesn’t get a chance to turn off.
When a person is healthy, these two systems are reciprocal, shifting back and forth depending on the body’s activity at the time. We can tell which system is dominant through certain physiological signs. For instance, sympathetic dominance in its extreme, involves sweaty palms, narrow pupils, muscle tension, dry mouth, and increased blood pressure or heart rate. The parasympathetic response is very different. In a book called The Relaxation Response, Dr. Herbert Benson discusses the “relaxed state,” which is essentially parasympathetic dominance. This is the state in which we sigh deeply and say, “Ah, I feel so good.” Nobody feels relaxed and not good – the experience of parasympathetic dominance is relaxation and pleasure.
Sympathetic arousal is certainly not always a negative thing. Sympathetic dominance is about alertness, activity, focus, and getting things done. When someone is “on the case” about something, being attentive and productive, the sympathetic nervous system is on.. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system supports rest, rejuvenation, and rehabilitation. It’s the state of ease and unguardedness, of being unconcerned about survival, of not being vigilant but instead feeling safe and open. We know that we’re in a parasympathetic mode before going to sleep, when we feel tired and are just looking forward to nodding off. When people can’t drift off and instead just lie awake, it’s because their sympathetic nervous system is still activated and they are not able to shift into parasympathetic mode to relax.
So, I repeat, what does any of this have to do with pelvic pain? As we discuss in A Headache in the Pelvis and in previous podcasts and articles, pelvic pain results from sore pelvic tissue put in an inhospitable environment of contraction and anxiety, when sympathetic dominance of the nervous system doesn’t support healing of this tissue for the soreness to go away. An unfortunate dilemma with pelvic pain is that pain makes you anxious and anxiety puts you in heightened “survival mode” where sympathetic dominance is the rule.
This creates an environment unsupportive of healing because the survival state focuses on in-the-moment-action and not long-term health. Sympathetic dominance tells the body to put aside all functions not immediately related to survival. When your house is on fire, you don’t start doing the laundry or washing dishes – the maintenance functions that keep things happy and nice in your house are put aside as you run for your life. The same thing happens in the body when the sympathetic nervous system is perpetually activated – the body never gets the opportunity to do the maintenance functions necessary for pelvic-floor tissue to rest and heal.
And that is why relaxation is so important for healing pelvic pain. Relaxation addresses the inhospitable environment that sore pelvic tissue finds itself in. By creating a hospitable, healing environment, relaxation reduces the anxiety that is such a central component of pelvic pain.
In another podcast, I’ll discuss the principles of taking control of the body and mind to move from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance.