Pragmatic answers for people with Parkinson's Disease can be gleaned by understanding that one of our fundamental problems is that we're stuck in the Freeze or "Playing Dead" stress mode of our sympathetic nervous systems. This renders us completely unable to relax, which then necessarily leads to increasing inflammation and toxification of our brains and bodies, with the resulting increase in pain making us ever more stressed - a very vicious circle. Hence re-learning how to relax has to be a principle goal in our recovery: to regain the knowledge of how to switch our "rest & digest" parasympathetic nervous system back on for prolonged periods. Indeed, I have recently been researching and experimenting with direct methods of teaching my body and brain to be able to relax again, in particular through relaxational and breathing meditations, in order to prove this point to myself.
A while ago, I was introduced me to the work of Dr Brad S Lichtenstein, an expert in breathing techniques and Polyvagal Theory. Brad has a number of breathing, relaxational and autogenic audio meditations freely available on his website, The Breath Space, which I've been listening to/absorbing during my "off" states, i.e. between doses of my PD drugs, when my symptoms return. Brad not only teaches us how to become aware of our breathing again, so very important in PD because our breath tends to be extremely shallow - thus restricting oxygen supply to the brain and contributing to neurodegeneration - but also shows us how to use breathing as a central part in relaxational meditation.
My friend Karen Scott, who does not have PD, also recently bought me a copy of an audio meditation from Katy Garner Coaching Yoga Hypno, which Karen herself has found very useful in removing mental blocks. The audio, called "Rest Yourself in 15 Minutes", is described as "a blend of hypnotherapy & yoga nidra to help you into a deep state of rest so your thinking mind can have a break, and your body can fully rest & digest". I have listened to this a few times now and indeed found it does help me considerably, especially in being able to relax more deeply than I have in years, even though I am "off" when following the voice therapy audio.
So do these relaxational techniques help in PD recovery? My own experience is a resounding "Yes". Here are the benefits I personally discovered quite quickly.
- Relaxing as best as possible during an "off" can greatly enhance the likelihood of the next dose of medication actually working, or help it to kick in earlier. I've also found it results in a smoother transition from "off" to "on" (without going through a tense muscle phase) and can even extend the next "on" period.
- Greatly reducing the pain associated with "off" periods and helping to maintain a much quieter mind, thus breaking the negative feedback cycles between physical pain and mental anguish, which are so very insidious in Parkinson's Disease.
- Improving my energy and mood afterwards.
- Making it easier to relax more quickly and deeply, through daily practice, i.e. repeatedly listening to the meditations appears to have a cumulative effect.
- Helping with sleep onset, by going through the meditations silently in my own mind, changing my inner voice to a frequency more appropriate for rest.
- Increasing my ability to hear and tune in to other peoples voice - being internally focussed and unable to listen to what others are trying to tell us is a perennial problem for people with PD.
The caveat I have on this is that these methods do require practice. Indeed, Brad comments "I have worked with a number of people with Parkinson's teaching them breath work and I have seen over time and with practice an improvement in heart rate variability [vagal tone, a measure of how well and quickly someone can relax] which is fascinating, but it seems dose dependent - practice for more than 20 minutes a day, while 10 minutes wasn't enough".
So don't expect any dramatic outcomes listening to the meditations just once. These are something we need to do/practice/listen to on a daily basis, and probably so for life.
But surely, when there is very little else we can practically do due to being in Parkinson's "off" states, then, instead of sitting or lying in pain and mental turmoil, listening to a relaxing message and re-learning how to relax both body and mind is a much more valuable use of our "off" time?
Karen also offers us some further thoughts when it come to stress managament and becoming calmer:
"Here is just a little information that may help you reduce stress, although it will take a little time.
Mental stress is caused by your thinking. So when you get cross or irritated with someone, it is not what they are doing that makes you cross, it is what you think about what they are doing that makes you cross.
Situations do not make you cross, it is what you think about the situation that makes you cross.
So when you start to get a little irritated, mentally step back, look at what you are thinking and see whether there is any way to change that even slightly.
For instance, if the person is trying to help but that help is getting on your nerves, try to be grateful for the help, work out exactly what is irritating and then work out how to ask them to change without upsetting them. That will keep your brain occupied and the irritation down.
It takes practice but with a little effort it will help you to be much calmer.
So remember you are always feeling your own thinking."
For more information about relaxation and PD, please see