Using Breath to Manage Pain
By Nanci Nilles Psy.D.
Although medication plays a role in managing chronic pain, it is important to use alternative pain management methods as well. One such alternative is the eliciting of the Relaxation Response first described by Dr. Benson and his colleagues at Harvard in the 1970's. The Relaxation Response includes 1) taking a deep breath and 2) having a passive mind.
Dr. Benson's research revealed that these practices elicit a response that calms and heals the body. It is a way to combat the automatic fight or flight response that often occurs in reaction to pain. The immediate benefits of obtaining the Relaxation Response are lower blood pressure and heart rate. The long term benefits include a decrease in anxiety, depression, and pain. Therefore, regularly practicing an activity for eliciting the Relaxation Response is essential.
A tried and true Relaxation Response activity is diaphragmatic breathing. Pain disrupts normal breathing, causing it to be short and shallow and focused in the upper chest, mimicking the breath patterns associated with tension.
A diaphragmatic breath is the opposite of chest breathing. It requires engaging the diaphragm, a thin layer of muscle separating the chest cavity from the abdomen. At the beginning of each inhalation, the diaphragm contracts, air enters the lungs, and the stomach extends.
As the breath is expelled, the diaphragm relaxes, and the abdomen flattens. It is believed that such deep breathing oxygenates the blood, which triggers the release of endorphins which, in turn, helps to decrease pain.
Research suggests that regular practice will maximize a person's ability to elicit the Relaxation Response as needed to cope with pain. Using an app such as "Calm" or "Insight Timer" to guide deep breathing exercises can make daily practice an enjoyable self-care activity. Minimizing distractions and making the environment comfortable also enhances the experience.
In addition to a regular practice, it can also be helpful to have reminders to take a breath throughout the day. Taking a moment during the day to focus on breathing can provide a small break from the stress of the day, which can help decrease pain and prevent it from building. It also keeps the focus on the present moment, instead of on the worries of the past or future.