Gynecologist Monica Christmas wishes that every parent could have at least one massage each month. Does that sound like bliss? It’s actually a form of mind-body therapy that can make all the difference in how we handle stress and even feel pain.
As director of the Center for Women’s Integrated Health at the University of Chicago Medicine, Dr. Christmas knows that the stress of everyday life can build up and cause muscle pain that negatively impacts function or makes an already existing condition — like migraine or fibromyalgia — worse.
“When helping patients, in addition to medical testing, I always ask about what’s going on in their life. What stresses are they under? What past traumas have they had that would exacerbate a chronic pain disorder?” Dr. Christmas asks. “Stress can impact our physical and mental well-being, so part of how I treat a patient is to understand what is going on with them holistically.”
For instance, when a patient comes to her for treatment of abnormal bleeding, fibroids or chronic pain from endometriosis, Dr. Christmas will evaluate anatomical factors that contribute to their bothersome symptoms and explore a variety of treatment options to manage their condition.
Exploring lifestyle interventions such as diet, exercise and mindfulness techniques to manage stress and improve overall health is included in that process.
“When our muscles are tight, it can lead to headaches and pain in the neck and shoulders and that means we might not sleep well and don’t feel good as a result,” she says. “I’m proactive about addressing stress management, as I have found in my clinical practice it can help ease pain and improve outcomes.” Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a technique that can be useful when helping patients manage stress related to certain medical conditions.
CBT typically involves techniques that help change unhelpful thinking patterns, according to the American Psychological Association. It encourages the use of problem-solving skills in difficult situations and works to build confidence in your own abilities. The focus is on developing effective ways to cope with life and there’s scientific evidence that CBT techniques produce change.
Learn techniques that calm
We all feel physical pain or discomfort from time to time, but how we react to that pain can make all the difference in its intensity. That’s where CBT can help. A skilled therapist can provide instruction in CBT techniques, and this may be the most effective way to get started. Or CBT can be self-taught through books or online resources.
CBT requires work and effort, but “the gains can be extraordinary and the skills are associated with improvement and prevention of relapse,” according to information from UChicago Medicine.
In essence, CBT can help by calming the mind, which in turn calms the muscles to reduce pain.
“Many experience the pain that comes with menstrual cramping, for instance. Relaxation techniques and calming breaths can help to relax pelvic muscles which can help ease the pain,” Dr. Christmas says.
Another example is hot flashes and nighttime sweats — or any nighttime disturbance that causes overactive thinking that crowds out sleep. No matter the cause, an overactive mind and good, restorative sleep can rarely coexist.
“This might cause you to wake up and you start to get anxious that your hair is wet (from sweat) and you know you don’t have time to redo it in the morning and then you worry about how much sleep you are getting,” Dr. Christmas says. “With CBT, you can take a minute to acknowledge what is happening. Remind yourself that it will pass. Breathing through it is a way of calming down.”
Now having found a calmer state, what can you do? “Kick the covers back, turn on a fan or drink a glass of water and go back to sleep,” she says.
Meditation, too, can teach you to breathe and refocus your mind on the present moment. “Numerous studies have shown that meditation, by helping bring your mind back to the moment, can calm the mind and the muscles, too,” Dr. Christmas explains.
Change your mindset
Other mind-body techniques include massage, reflexology and acupuncture. “These can help with a host of things, including pain management,” says Dr. Christmas. “We have a multidisciplinary approach, and yes, we can use what we call western medicine or surgery, but also adjunctive mind-body therapies.”
Positive thinking can help redirect what Dr. Christmas calls a “rabbit hole of negative, self-sabotaging thoughts” to actually improve our ability to manage stress. And what parent hasn’t felt a boatload of stress this past year?
Exercise is a great way to boost a positive mood, and it’s all the better if you can remember your focus is to keep yourself in the best mental and physical state. In other words, don’t self-sabotage before you even start, says Dr. Christmas.
“You might say to yourself ‘I’m exhausted, there’s no way I could exercise right now; I would pass out.’ Well, you actually won’t. There are endorphins that you secrete when you exercise that will help you feel better naturally,” she says, adding that if you still feel self-doubt, start small.
“I have started to recognize that I can do anything for 10 minutes a day, so I Move with Nicole on YouTube for at least 10 minutes on the days I feel most exhausted,” Dr. Christmas says. “When I have more energy, I do a longer workout. Learn what helps boost your positive outlook and do more of it. “Anything is better than nothing at all,” she reminds us.
Also, reap the benefits of the increased availability of telehealth and online resources — like life coaching — as a silver lining of the pandemic.
Whatever form of mind-body therapy you select, if it works for you, it can help you be a better parent, says Dr. Christmas.
“It makes you a better mom,” she says. ‘If you are able to feel good, calm your mind and get improve overall health, you will be able to deal with everything better.”
Learn about UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s unique approach to care. Discover uchicagomedicine.org.