How to Reduce Stress for Quicker Recovery After Surgery

The Physical Effect of Stress on the Body

When our mind perceives danger, stress hormones are released this is what's often called the "fight-or-flight response." The physical changes evoked include an increased heart rate and a rise in blood pressure. Breathing is also accelerated and becomes shallow and the brain shuts down various abilities, to evaluate, plan, and make decisions. When stress is ongoing long term effects can include, a rise in cholesterol levels, digestive disorders and negatively impact the immune system, which can delay healing and increase the risk of infections after an injury or surgical procedure. Additionally, long term stress can increase the likelihood of stress-related disorders, such as cardiac problems and stroke.

Research has shown taking the below steps can reduce stress for faster healing and reduced pain and complications after surgery:

Meditation, Relaxation Techniques, and Yoga

Clinical studies show that regular meditation, the use of relaxation techniques, and participation in Yoga can reduce stress levels and provide long term, improvements to both mental and physical health. To be effective studies have indicated that to have the most impact on stress you should try to practice meditation and relaxation techniques for around 20 minutes a day. However, if you miss a day or can only manage 5 minutes you should still experience benefits and a reduction in stress levels.

Practicing Meditation and Relaxation Techniques

Mindfulness meditation

There are numerous meditation programmes and guided meditation scripts available online. There are many ways to meditate, one form of meditation that research has demonstrated has shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and lower pain levels is Mindfulness meditation. You can practice anywhere you feel safe and comfortable. One of the most simple forms of meditation you focus your mind on your breathing. When your mind wanders you acknowledge it and consciously return to focusing on only your breathing. It may be helpful to look at a lit candle, to help you focus if you find you struggle with wandering thoughts.

Below are a few of the relaxation techniques that can help you to lower stress and reduce the release of stress chemicals.

Conscious Breathing

This technique requires you to use slow, deep breathing, sometimes referred to as abdominal breathing. You can combine this with a technique called a body scan. During a body scan, you mentally focus on releasing tension from each part of your body, normally starting from the top of your head and ending up with your toes.

Guided imagery

Have you ever been on a train or the underground and closed your eyes and imagined you were somewhere else? Did you picture where you would like to be? Then you used guided imagery. You can apply this to a better effect by setting aside a time and a comfortable space, to lie or sit and picture places in your mind. Alternatively, you can look at physical images or watch recordings of scenes or listen to guided imagery audio 'tapes'. 'One clinical study found that among patients undergoing colorectal surgery, those who listened to guided imagery tapes before, during, and after the operation had less pain and needed fewer pain medications than those who did not. Another found that relaxation practices, such as deep breathing, progressive relaxation, and visualization enhanced the immune response among breast cancer patients.'

Yoga and Tai Chi

During yoga and tai chi rhythmic breathing blended with slow deliberate movements and postures help you to calm your mind and be present. Additionally, your muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and posture will improve and your general health will benefit. You can learn yoga by watching videos or taking part in classes which are also available free of charge, online.

Do not feel you need to choose one technique, in fact, research has shown that combining different methods to reduce stress may be more effective. The most benefit will be felt from using these techniques daily regardless of the technique you choose.

For more information about how to use relaxation techniques, the Trauma Center have put together a helpful guide 'Relaxation and Relaxation Exercises' This resource guide was produced at the Trauma Center, with the funding of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance (MOVA), under a federal Anti-Terrorism Supplemental Grant (ATSG), to aid Victims of and Responders to the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks.

Massage therapies

Various research has shown that moderate pressure applied during massage is more effective than light pressure, and can instantly reduce cortisol levels and increase the release of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. The result of these changes includes, reduced stress and pain levels, decreased muscle tension, and a general feeling of wellbeing.

'In studies in which cortisol was assayed either in saliva or in urine, significant decreases were noted in cortisol levels (averaging decreases 31%). In studies in which the activating neurotransmitters (serotonin and dopamine) were assayed in urine, an average increase of 28% was noted for serotonin and an average increase of 31% was noted for dopamine.'

'Moderate pressure massage ..... enhances the body's immune response by increasing the activity of natural killer cells. Functional brain imaging studies show that changes take place in many areas of the brain involved in regulating emotions and stress response ....'

Swedish massage is one form of moderate pressure massage that uses a mixture of kneading, circular movements and slow, long, deep strokes to penetrate into the deeper layers of muscle. Additionally, this technique has also been proven to almost instantly reduce blood pressure and alleviate stress and anxiety.

Advice your therapist prior to having any type of massage if you:

Have any unhealed wounds, irritated areas of skin and,or burns. Recently healed fractures Take blood-thinning medication or have been advised you have a bleeding disorder Deep vein thrombosis Osteoporosis (bone disease) Thrombocytopenia (low blood platelet count)

Prior to massage therapy

Before any form of massage therapy, your therapist should discuss your current symptoms, medical history, and what to expect during the massage and if they will use any oils or lotions. You may choose to undress or your massage therapist may be able to work around loose clothing. Always advise your therapist if you experience any pain, or feel that too much pressure is being applied or if you are feeling uncomfortable.

Questions to ask your massage therapist

What are your qualifications and are you a member of any professional organisation? How long have you been practicing this form of massage therapy? How many sessions would you recommend for the most benefit?

Further Resources

Getting Started with Mindfulness

What is the best type of meditation?

Visualization and Guided Imagery Techniques for Stress Reduction

Posted on Jun 03, 2020

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