Millions of Americans suffer from painful medical disorders such as migraines, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome.
While conventional treatment for these problems focuses on medication, researchers at University at Buffalo’s Behavioral Medicine Division argue that behavioral strategies such as diaphragmatic breathing and cognitive change skills are crucial aspects of mind-body health, and that their efficacy is, for many disorders, more powerful than medical therapies.
Many of us search for answers to symptoms by consulting doctors, trying new diets, taking prescriptions, or relying on social media trends. However, if we look inside ourselves, we have access to a healing resource that is free and in unlimited supply.
We have our breath to get us back on track.
What Is Healing Breathing?
Most of us go through the day unaware of our breathing. Many of us, especially those with chronic pain disorders, engage in shallow breathing as opposed to diaphragmatic breathing, also known as abdominal breathing.
Proper breathing plays a crucial role in whole-body health, says Jeffrey Lackner, PsyD, University at Buffalo. “Respiration is under the control of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of the nervous system that regulates automatic or involuntary bodily functions such as the beating of our heart, sweating, and digestion,” he says.
“It [breathing] also plays a role in pain. Because the way the body is hardwired, it [the breath] is one of the few parts of the ANS we have direct control over. Learning to control breathing can help regulate the ANS and its impact on pain and digestive functions.”
Learning controlled breathing not only directly impacts physical symptoms, “it can increase our sense of control and confidence in managing symptoms on our own,” Dr. Lackner says. “This can have a ripple effect on better managing difficult- to-control, hard-to-treat, digestive symptoms aggravated by stress, negative emotions, and other lifestyle triggers.”
Manage Chronic Pain Through the Breath
Living with chronic pain is tiring and stressful. When symptoms arise, they can invoke anxiety and worry, further escalating stress. At this point, managing symptoms or even looking at the situation objectively moves further out of reach.
Ultimately, when we feel at the mercy of our symptoms, we feel worse. Christopher Radziwon, PhD, describes breathing as a “first-step response,” which helps us feel more in control of our lives and symptoms and also serves to reduce our body’s stress response.
“Breathing is one of the control mechanisms we have to slow our system down a bit,” he says. “When we breathe more, we notice our bodies more.”
Noticing where we hold tension—chest, neck, jaw, or gut, for example—is key in managing chronic pain. “Our bodies physically show us our stress even before we know it is there,” says Dr. Radziwon.
We can then use the information about where we hold stress in our bodies to signal us that something is out of balance in our lives. If breathing brings our attention to our clenched jaw, then we can do a self- assessment. This inquiry might bring our attention to an upcoming job interview, which opens doors to healthier stress management. “Breathing is an effective way of intervening early,” Dr. Radziwon says.
Drs. Lackner and Radziwon emphasize that breathing works best in conjunction with other strategies rather than as a standalone treatment. Ideally, since the crux of their research focuses on changing thinking patterns and how our bodies react to thoughts, cognitive behavioral therapy would be included when treating chronic medical conditions. Cognitive behavioral therapy targets the mind-body, mind-gut connections and is an effective treatment for some of the most challenging pain disorders.
In centralized pain disorders such as pelvic pain, TMJ, IBS, and nonspecific back pain, people spend a lot of time thinking. The rest of your body reacts to that thinking, says Dr. Lackner. “These are problems where the brain is a big player. It is hard to treat these people unless you respect the role the brain has and mobilize its resources.”
Practice Every Day
Drs. Radziwon and Lackner concur that breathing is not supposed to be complicated. A napping baby or pet naturally demonstrates diaphragmatic breathing without the use of a manual.
The key, says Dr. Radziwon, is to practice a little every day, noticing body tension before it gets out of hand, even while sitting in a car or waiting for an appointment.
For some, placing a hand on the belly and pretending to inflate an imaginary belly balloon is helpful. Then, while breathing out slowly, deflate the balloon in the belly.
Notice the differences and embrace this incredible resource that improves and enhances quality of life.