When a person has chronic pain, a flare can occur anytime and disrupt work, family time, sleep, and social activities. The normal reaction is to either grin and bear it for as long as possible or step away from the situation until the episode passes. Neither choice is a pleasant way to go through life, and can lead to a lot of missed personal and professional opportunities. It may seem like enduring this pain is the only option, but using simple breathing techniques during an active flare can drastically reduce the feeling of pain and allow you to remain engaged in your life. A common source of discomfort in chronic pain sufferers is an overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, which influences the firing of pain receptors in the brain. The corollary to the sympathetic nervous system is the parasympathetic, and this system calms the body and mind so everything can rest and heal. Controlled breathing taps into the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, and taking just a few moments to engage with your breath can keep an episode from spiraling out of control and ruining your day or week.
This technique does not need to take a lot of time and can be accomplished in just a few minutes. In fact, once you become familiar with it, it is possible to incorporate the approach during almost any activity.
First, start to pay attention to your breath and note if the inhales and exhales are fast or short, and whether you are holding your breath.
Next, try to even out your breathing rate by taking mindful and long inhales and exhales, which serves to clam and deactivate the nervous system.
Then, notice which parts of your body are experiencing the most pain, and use each exhale to let tension go in these areas so they can relax. Try to visualize the muscles letting go and focus on feeling more expansion in the ribcages and lung with each breath.
Finally, instead of pushing back against the pain, become curious about it and imagine how you would describe the shape, texture, size, and location to another person. This technique gives the mind an opportunity to disengage from pain producing patterns by reducing the anxiety of experience.
Following these steps to regulate breathing and mental focus should reduce your pain in the moment, and like any other technique, the more you do it, the easier it gets and the greater the benefit you feel.
Try it the next time you feel pain coming on, and see what happens!