- How I Recovered from Postpartum Painful Sex, Part 1
- How I Recovered from Postpartum Painful Sex, Part 2
- What It’s REALLY Like to Get Physical Therapy for Painful Sex & Pelvic Floor Disorder
- Real Hope: Pelvic Floor Rehab at Home
- Mind-Body Rehab for Painful Sex & Pelvic Floor Disorders — The Ultimate DIY Guide
- Step-by-Step: How to Find Help for Painful Sex or Pelvic Pain
Photo source: StockVault
You may want to skip this part. Meditation doesn’t feel like doing something about your physical problem. Relaxation and biofeedback seem too weird to produce real, clinical results.
But those are feelings, not fact. Research shows mind and body so closely intertwined that even to say mind-body “connection” is misleading.
Your mind is creating your body and your body is creating your mind this very moment. Why not work with that?
You will get the best healing results for your very real, very physical pelvic floor disorder if you address it from the mind and body directions together. Attacking only the physical angle is to ignore your fundamental design—and possibly to fight an uphill battle forever. Interested in prevention? The same logic applies. True wellness is always about the whole person.
You might have a third objection to mind-body work: it’s hard.
Yes. Our culture doesn’t support this kind of work yet. We have zero training and must learn the skills from scratch. That is hard.
But if you work at this mind-body thing, it stops being the Hardest Thing Ever and starts being the Best Thing Ever.
It changes your whole life.
You can live the rest of your days not only more physically functional, but also more aware, peaceful, and whole. And all because your incontinence, pelvic pain, or sexual dysfunction got your attention, and you—you clever thing, you—endured the struggle to learn some fabulous life skills.
I like that picture. How about you?
How Stress Responses, the Mind, & Emotions Affect Pelvic Floor Disorders
This is an enormous topic and beyond my pay-grade, but here’s a simplified version:
- Your body’s response to external and internal stress can sometimes cause pelvic floor disorders, largely through unconscious chronic muscle tension. This tension may cause not only frequent UTIs or painful sex, but also organ prolapse, incontinence, or generalized pelvic pain.
- Stress responses and/or the physiological consequences of fear and negative emotions can also exacerbate and perpetuate pelvic floor disorders, whatever their primary cause. The fear-tension-pain cycle is one mechanism for this. Another is that a body stuck in sympathetic or hyper-vagal stress response mode cannot heal well; its resources are directed elsewhere.
- On a more intuitive note, emotional and energetic blocks can hinder healing. Parts of you may unconsciously say “no” to healing or change, even as the rest of you craves it. The healing process can be threatening if helplessness or avoiding the risk of disappointment feels safer than the alternative. Or, if you hate your body for failing you or hurting you, you may not be capable of the self-care required for healing.
Photo source: MorgueFile
My own story illustrates all of these points. For years I suffered undiagnosed low-grade pelvic floor tension caused partly by stress responses (#1). After sustaining a second-degree tear during birth, my pelvic floor muscles locked up in severe spasm. Though my postpartum pelvic floor dysfunction was trauma-induced, it was reinforced and perpetuated by automatic physiological responses to excruciating intercourse attempts, my fears about the situation, and my extreme negative emotions about the dysfunction (#2). And, like many women, I hated my body for its betrayal (#3). Other than craving sex, which had become impossible, I wanted nothing to do with my pelvic region. I became frightened even to touch my perineum. You can imagine how impossible massaging the scar sounded! (If you missed my whole story, catch up here.)
You can probably already see how working on mind-body health before you have pelvic floor problems is so valuable. You might outright prevent the dysfunction in the first place (especially if you include information from the next couple of posts in this series), but even if you do develop symptoms as I did after my baby’s birth, you’ll have some incredible tools for interrupting the cycles of reinforcement and for processing the emotional toll. My recovery was dramatic and quick, and I absolutely attribute that to my prior mind-body practices like mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation.
What Can You Do about This Mind-Body Thing?
Thank God, a lot.
You have real power in this equation, and there are real tools to help. Don’t leave them on the table.
These tools include
- DIY Emotional Acupressure
- DIY Biofeedback
- Cognitive Restructuring
- Bowen Family Systems Theory coaching
- Supportive Practices: gratitude, fun, time in nature, and pleasure
I’ll give you a taste of each of these tools today and offer some resources for you to explore if you’d like to start practicing one or two.
Please don’t think I’m suggesting you take up all of these at once. Adding one at a time to your life is fantastic!
If you’re in an acute state of suffering, by all means hit these practices a little harder. I was pretty dedicated myself during my recovery. Just consider this: can you choose these practices in a spirit of self-nurture and healing? If, instead, you’re overwhelmed by fear and self-loathing (I understand, I’ve been there), I suggest you try tapping first. Here are instructions and a video to get you started.
Now, on to the tools!
Photo source: MorgueFile
If you only choose of these practices, choose this one. My teacher describes mindfulness this way: “Mindfulness is the practice of bringing spacious, non-judgmental awareness to your present moment experience.”
In other words, mindfulness means getting off autopilot to notice with compassion what’s happening as it’s happening.
Its top benefits for pelvic floor disorders?
- It helps you notice your body in real time, discover existing patterns, interrupt them, and replace them with new habits. For example, you may notice that your pelvic floor muscles tense up in traffic or scary movies. Now you can practice relaxing your muscles in traffic and establish a new normal—and ditch the scary movies.
- It reduces the stress signals throughout your whole body, which means among other things, less muscle tension and more healing. Mindfulness has a profound calming effect on human physiology and cognition.
- It helps you not miss your life, even when it isn’t so welcome. Let’s face it, pelvic floor disorders are the very definition of “unwelcome.” Mindfulness increases your capacity to be here, open-armed, for your whole experience and to walk it through with God moment by moment. And it can enlarge your capacity for joy.
Want to learn more? Visit my mind-body resource page here.
You don’t need a special pillow, secret mantra, or uncommon ability. All you need is a beginner’s mind.
Meditation sounds formidable, but that’s one part cultural misconceptions and ten parts perfectionism. It’s not achieving a state of “no thoughts” or relaxation. It’s about attention and focus—or, at least, gently bringing your focus back each of the 2 billion times it wanders away in the span of 20 minutes. (Or is it just me?) While relaxation may be a by-product, it’s the relaxation of calm attunement, not “melting.”
Whether you choose mindfulness-based meditation or a meditation practice from the Christian tradition, meditating regularly trains, calms, and re-centers your mind and body in ways science is only beginning to understand. It restructures your brain and builds neuro-pathways for attention, compassion, and healing. Studies even show that daily meditation decreases cortisol and inflammation levels, both critical for efficient healing.
Because I’ve worked on biofeedback equipment at home and in professional settings (HRV, skin, muscle, neuro, and more), I can say this with confidence: meditation will change your body. And your mind. And your spirit. You can’t lose!
Check out my favorite meditation resources here, including recommended books, audio tracks, and tools.
So I just said that meditation is not primarily about relaxation or melting. But melting is good too! You need it.
Relaxation exercises help you learn to connect to different muscle groups and choose to relax them more and more deeply with practice. You can imagine how important that is with any hypertonic pelvic muscle activity. It also feels awesome and can be a great emotional and mental stress-relieving tool, promoting healing for anyone.
It relieves stress on the physiological level too. Your body has many biofeedback loops, and if I understand the science correctly, not only does stress trigger muscle tension, but tense muscles signal the nervous system that you’re stressed. So the cycle can be self-reinforcing.
Relax your muscles, relax your mind; relax your mind, relax your muscles. It goes both ways, and pelvic floor disorders need both.
If you feel intimidated by meditation, relaxation is a good place to start. Once you get into the habit of sitting down to “do nothing,” it’s easier to begin meditating.
I prefer guided relaxation sessions, and you’ll find my favorite options on this resource page.
The kind of yoga you want here is the mindful kind—where your instructor encourages you to move slowly, to pay attention to your own body, to breathe, to notice your many sensations and to remain in the present moment with them. Yoga can be a moving meditation.
This is not the time for power yoga or competitive yoga. And take especial caution if you have diastasis recti (DR), a separation of the rectus abdominis that often accompanies pelvic floor disorders.
If your body is too too vulnerable for a yoga class, try gentle stretching at home, bringing your whole attention to your body and the present moment as you stretch. My meditation instructor, Micki Fine, has two audio-guided mindful stretching CDs available here, and I’ll share stretches every pelvic floor needs in a future installment of this series.
One program I’ve been reading about is Yoga Tune Up. Jill Miller, the founder, is keenly aware of alignment issues, common “cheats,” and movement restrictions. Once I finish healing my own DR (I didn’t know how to strength train safely during pregnancy!), I’d like to order some of her DVDs.
Like relaxation, yoga is a great place to start if sitting meditation feels too intimidating right now.
Photo source: StockVault
Did you know your fingertips can tell you a lot about your body’s stress responses? Touch your fingertips to your cheek. If your fingers are noticeably cooler than your cheek, you’re likely in sympathetic, or “fight or flight,” stress response mode. Yes, I too was always told it was low thyroid. Turns out it’s not that simple.
If your fingers are noticeably warmer than your cheeks, you may be in a hyper-vagal stressed state. Most people think of vagal—parasympathetic—response as “good,” but it’s only good if it’s in balance.
You can repeat this test throughout your days and weeks, noticing what sends your fingertip temperature plummeting or sky-rocketing. You might choose to limit certain activities that are very stressful, or learn to engage in them differently—more slowly, with more breathing and mindfulness.
And you can use this simple test to give you feedback on how your body responds to, say, time outdoors or breathing deeply or meditating or reading your favorite book or . . . you get the idea.
When you find things that nudge your fingertip temperature toward cheek temperature, take note and be sure to repeat them.
You could also purchase a home biofeedback system called HeartMath. My husband and I have both used this heart rate variability (HRV) tracking program with good results!
Emotional Acupressure Techniques
I don’t ever want to live again without emotional acupressure techniques like tapping and the Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT)! They’ve improved my quality of life for years and were an enormous help during my pelvic floor woes. You can read more about that here.
If you’re willing to consider the possibility that emotions and trauma are affecting your health, or if you’re simply overwhelmed by your emotions during this time of suffering (I’ve been there myself), then take these tools out for a spin. What do you have to lose?
For panicky-feeling times or if you’re new to emotional acupressure, try tapping. It’s a great place to start! See my demonstration here.
For emotions and negative thought patterns that re-occur, try the TAT. It has a bit of a learning curve, but offers spectacular results. I show you how to do a TAT here.
You can also read my comparison of the two techniques here.
Photo source: MorgueFile
So that’s just a fancy way to say, “learn to think differently.” It’s amazing the difference new thoughts make in the healing process! Believe it or not, the pelvic physical therapy center prescribed thinking positive thoughts about my body and sending positive vibes to my pelvis as part of my homework.
I’m no attraction theorist or name-it-and-claim-it girl. I do, however, want to challenge my extreme and blatantly false thoughts and guide myself toward more constructive ones. I also want to remind myself of what’s true, and consider alternative interpretations of my circumstances and sensations.
What does this look like in practice? Some examples:
- Look for ways you distort reality in your mind. When you catch yourself thinking extreme and negative thoughts, ask yourself if you’re falling into common distortion traps, like jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, personalization, and “black and white” thinking (read the full list here). If you find yourself repeating the same distortion over and over, try one of the emotional acupressure techniques above to help loosen its grip.
- Appreciate your body for what it has done and still does. You can do this at pre-determined times, like when you wake up or before you do some rehab work, as well as when you catch yourself hating your body and thinking about how it failed you. What has your body done for you and your loved ones? What can you appreciate about it?
- Post reminders of what you really believe is true about yourself, your life, your body, and God, rather than what you feel is true in your darker moments.
- Instead of labeling everything as “pain” or “bad,” try exploring your sensations and using different words to describe them. Try softening and opening toward them. Notice the full experience. Is it really just pain? Or can you identify sensations like tension, pulling, heaviness, etc? Mindfulness training and techniques from the book Back Sense will be helpful here.
I’m sure you can come up with many more ways to support your recovery with your thoughts!
Bowen Family Systems Theory Coaching
This is the wild card of the bunch and does require a coach, but it’s too important and unique to leave it out.
While it may sound like it’s only for people who have “family problems” or respond badly to family stress, stick with me.
To “think systems” the Bowen way is to think about any organism’s functioning in the context of an adaptive, natural (biological) system oriented toward survival of the whole. It applies to single-cell organisms, to ants, to dolphins, to humans—and everything in between.
It means that symptoms—whether physical, social, or psychological—are more complicated than we think. If you only look at yourself or your immediate social and family environment for clues, you may be missing a huge piece of the puzzle.
People whose bodies are highly responsive to dynamics in their larger family system may experience more involuntary muscle tension than others. They are, in a way, carrying more than their own share of muscle tension—and without anyone making conscious choices about it. It’s biological, not psychological.
This can include tension in the pelvic floor muscles and, you guessed it, subsequent pelvic floor disorders of various kinds. One expert I know believes even smooth muscle can carry this tension (that’s the kind of muscle that surrounds organs like the uterus or testicles), leading to pelvic pain or testicular pain.
Similar dynamics apply to stress responses. I myself was highly susceptible to hyper-vagal episodes before I began working with a Bowen Theory coach a few years ago.
None of this is pathological, but it does impose certain limitations. If your body doesn’t respond to the other mind-body techniques, this could be the missing piece. Check out Bowen Theory to see how you can gradually alter your functional role in your family system. Modify your system role and its intensity, change your symptoms.
Yes, this is pretty esoteric stuff. It’s also amazing. Amazing. Because it works. One of these days, I’ll share my own story of dramatic physiological changes through applying Bowen Theory.
Visit my Bowen Theory resources page to learn more.
Photo source: MorgueFile
Supportive Practices – Gratitude, Nature, Play, & Pleasure
Don’t forget the simple things like gratitude, spending time outdoors, making time for play, and incorporating little pleasures into your life. All of these contribute to your quality of life, lift your spirits, and alter your biochemistry and nervous system—for the better.
You might ask yourself these questions:
- How can you spend more time enjoying Nature? See my article for some practical ideas.
- What is fun for you? How can you help yourself play a couple times a week? Maybe you can start with dancing for 5 minutes in the mornings or a picnic once a month.
- What are you thankful for? You could start a gratitude journal.
- What brings you pleasure? How can you incorporate these things into your daily life? A square of chocolate here, a cup of tea on the sofa there, lighting candles in the evening, or your favorite silky shirt.
Whew! That article was a doozy, wasn’t it? I hope you learned something new along the way and have some ideas for incorporating mind-body tools for pelvic floor health.
Again, I don’t suggest taking them all on at once—or maybe even ever. Just pick one or two and start there. Remember, these are tools for life and for healing, not self-torture. For ideas on establishing new habits gently, see my article here.
Whether you’re trying to prevent or reverse pelvic floor problems, I hope you’ll go against the trend and incorporate mind-body practices from the start, rather than as a last resort. You have so much to gain!
What do you think about mind-body practices? Have you tried any of these before? Would you like more information about any of these tools?