Week 1: Understanding chronic pain

Week 4: Healthy thinking, healthy self

Week 5: Balancing your activity patterns

Week 6: Maintaining your gains and staying well

Rest vs. relaxation – what’s the difference?

When you think about relaxation, what comes to mind? If your chronic pain forces you to rest a lot, you may think you’re already ‘doing’ relaxation. For example, Carla often has to spend days in bed and on the couch due to her pain. So, when her psychologist suggested she try out relaxation, she was confused. “Surely I’m already doing enough of that?”, she thought. Like many people, Carla thought relaxation is the same as rest.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a big difference between rest and relaxation. 

  • Rest is about stopping work and physical activity. Our bodies demand rest on a daily basis; this is why we go to bed each night, put our feet up on the couch, and have other periods of inactivity. 
  • Relaxation, on the other hand, involves being free from tension and anxiety. It is more of a mental process of rejuvenation and ‘letting go’. Relaxation can also reduce the physical tension and arousal we experience from stress and anxiety. 

Activities can either be restful, relaxing, or both. For example, lying in bed thinking about your problems is a form of rest, but it is definitely not relaxing. Similarly, exploring a new country can be relaxing, but it may not be restful. Then there are activities, like having a massage or practicing meditation, which can be both restful and relaxing. For Carla, spending time in bed and watching TV was a form of rest, but it wasn’t relaxation. Carla didn’t feel light and refreshed after these activities, probably because her usual cares and anxieties were still present.

If you’re like Carla, perhaps there is an imbalance between the amount of time you spend resting versus the amount of time you spend relaxing? This is common in people with chronic pain. Pain often demands that people stop their work and usual activities for more rest. However, because the rest is uncomfortable and not on their terms, they struggle with it. As such, periods of rest are often coupled with feelings of guilt, anxiety, disappointment, and despair. Physically, you may be resting, but mentally and emotionally you are fighting.