I woke up Friday morning, turned towards my phone to shut off the Bon Jovi streaming through the speaker, quieted the early morning melody, and elongated my body- stretching first my toes, calves, quads, and consciously moving up way up my body. I raised my arms above my head, interlaced my fingers, straightened my arms, and pulled my head towards the headboard. A felt a light snap at the left side of my neck and then felt a wave of tension take hold of the entire left side of my neck. The muscle had contracted hard, tensing the muscle in my trapezius, and pulling my shoulder high to my ear. Like a first unable to unclench, the muscles in my neck spasmed as they held contracted against each other. These spasms occurred every 10 minutes and lasted 2-5 minutes, for the next fours. And while it’s been two weeks since the Doc at the walk-in diagnosed my neck spasms as “torticollis” or a “sprained neck”, and I can hardly remember the pain I felt that morning before the pain medicine and muscle relaxants kicked in, I know that I have never experienced pain like that in my body.
The night before the injury I fell asleep reading Gabrielle Bernstein’s book, “The Universe Has Your Back” which explores the power of mantras. Perhaps that’s why as I laid there calling out to my roommate as the pain encapsulated my neck in spasms I repeated calming mantras to myself to help myself relax. Each time the spasms sprung into my body I said “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe” “You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay.” over and over again until the twinge passed. Not only did the mantra give me something to focus on as the pain came and passed, but it actually reminded me to focus on my breath.
The average human does not need a neck sprain to experience tension or stress in the neck and upper back region. Stress affects our bodies everywhere, most of us are familiar with emotional stress causing a headache (We even have a name for it — tension headache). When we undergo physical or emotional stress we have the tendency to tense up and tighten our neck muscles, which contributes to neck pain. When my neck was taken ahold of my a series of spasms and contractions, my innate response was one of stress: What if this feeling of pain never subsides? What if I am unable to regain control of my body? What if I can’t exercise for the next week or month? I added to the pain in my neck because my stress-questions and fear caused me to tense up, which added to the tightness in my already-tight neck muscles.
Neck pain caused by stress is often treated by helping patients learn relaxation techniques such as yoga breathing, meditation, and positive self-talk. The use of mantras incorporates all three which is why I used the mantra, “breathe” to get me through my neck pain and now continue to use mantras during times of stress in order to re-center.
The dictionary defines mantra as: A word or formula chanted or sung as an incantation or prayer. I define mantra as a kick in the butt, that push that lifts you up that hill when you’re at your last breath, the fight that gets you up out of bed on a cold morning, or phrase that helps you stay calm when stress or anxiety threaten to take hold.
So what makes a good mantra? One that’s short, positive, instructive, and full of action words (verbs). You can have multiple mantras in your “relaxation bank” and can even make up words if no phrase evokes the feeling you’re trying to acces. For example, “Relaxer”, “Mooba”, “Om” are all nonwords that are often used to enter a mindful state of being.
If you want to make your own mantra, keep it short and affirmative. For example, “Don’t forget to breathe” will be less effective than “breathe” and “Don’t be afraid” or “You HAVE to do this” are less effective than “I am brave” and “Yes you can”. If the problem you’re trying to counteract is negative, create a mantra that turns it around. If you feel weak, focus on strength. If you’re in pain, focus on calmness. Because mantras are meant to be repeated over and over as part of a meditative process, keeping it short is key. Aim for 5 seconds or less.
The phrase or word and its meaning is just as important as the way the phrase and word are said. As I reminded myself to “breathe” I enjoyed the sturdy lightness of the word on my tongue, felt single syllable dropping into the middle of my chest and oozing its way down to my heart’s center. When my mind wandered back to the feeling of pain I brought myself back to the sound of myself saying “Breathe”, which reminded me to inhale and exhale. The goal was to make the mantra my predominant thought, which is what the goal of any mantra should be.
A repeated and well-chosen mantra can keep us on track and keep derailing, belittling thoughts out of our minds and negative experiences or pains from capturing our bodies. Research shows that, positive self-talk can help reduce stress and the risk of depression, boost our immune system and overall health, and improve our confidence. And, what’s more, we don’t even have to say these catch phrases out loud like I did during m neck injury! Just repeating them in our head is enough to keep us feelin’ tough and ready to conquer whatever life throws at us.
Mantras can be incorporated into the different areas of our life. We can create a morning mantra to kick start our day, a mantra to get us through our workouts, a mantra to get us through tough conversations with friends or loved-ones, a mantra to keep us on-task at work. The only requirement of a solid mantra is that it revs you up, keeps you positive, and inspires you to recenter.