Chronic pain is the body’s response to injury or disease that lasts a long time. Many people have lived with it for months or years, which drastically affects the quality of life when allowed to dominate us.
Do you often feel worn out or tense? Have you experienced a pain flare, a panic attack? All of these events have one thing in common: your nervous system. Read on for my #1 Pain and Anxiety-Management Tool.
The Nervous System: Friend or Foe?
The nervous system has two speeds. One keeps the body relaxed while “housekeeping” duties are performed, and muscles enjoy a vacation (parasympathetic); the other (sympathetic) puts the body into emergency-response mode—often called the fight-or-flight response.
What a life-saver the sympathetic nervous system can be when we need to avoid danger or mishap. What a drama queen it is when it shifts into high gear and stays there.
In short spurts, the sympathetic nervous system provides heightened awareness, increased blood flow, and a burst of energy to muscles so that we can move quickly. But when it dominates us for hours and days, the hormones that stimulate blood flow and rigid muscles overtax our system and flood our brain with chemicals that cause us to be a nervous wreck. We stop thinking logically, overreact, have anger-management issues, use physical force instead of communication skills, and feel pain more acutely. We become what our mothers called a bundle of nerves.
How Stress Affects The Body
We live in a stressed-out society where tension seems to be the norm. But it takes its toll on the body, causing or worsening:
- Increased muscle tension
- Increased anxiety
- Shoulder and neck pain
- TMJ (jaw tension/pain)
Tension serves a purpose when we need to avoid being mowed down on a crosswalk, but it is the worst thing for pain because muscles are, of course, tense. When stress puts the body into fight-or-flight mode, we need a way to call the first responders off and allow the housekeepers to get back to work. After all, our lunch didn’t get to finish digesting, our eyes are dry and irritated, we’re still getting our breath from high in the chest, and we’re wiped out.
Remedies For Stress and Tension
There are dozens of ways to calm down, but our first go-to may be the medicine cabinet or the local pub—drink and drugs that numb or relax us. But these are just Band-Aids that leave us with a host of side effects and no improvement for the next time our nerves are screaming.
When pain or anxiety threatens to sideline us or merely hampers our enjoyment of life, we need something simple and effective that will help us control it. What we really need are quick and effective pain and anxiety-management tools. Breathing is my number one go-to remedy.
Diaphragmatic breathing is my secret weapon against pain. – Becky Curtis
Breathing to the rescue!
Ya, right! You’re thinking. Breathing is automatic, and I didn’t stop while I was raging at that stupid driver or arguing with my teenager. No, you probably didn’t stop breathing. But you likely changed the way you were breathing. Pay attention the next time you’re anxious, hurting, or frustrated. You will likely find that you are taking short breaths that barely expand the top of your chest.
How does our breathing affect us? Aside from providing life-sustaining oxygen, breathing has a huge effect on our nervous system. For a few minutes, experiment with how you breathe:
- short breaths originating high in the chest
- breathing from the bottom of the belly
- using the diaphragm (see below) to fill the lungs—expand the rib cage
Which draws in the most air? Can you do #1 or #2 for a long time without taking a catch-up breath—the one that sounds like a heavy sigh?
[An illustration of the respiratory system]
What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that extends across the bottom of the rib cage. It is the strongest and most efficient breathing muscle. Without it, opera singers couldn’t perform, and athletes would faint. We get anxious and tense if we don’t engage it to maximize our oxygen intake. Utilizing the diaphragm to breathe will:
- Bring increased oxygen into the lungs
- Decrease muscle tension
- Regulate body metabolism
- Ease and reverse the biochemical effects of shallow breathing that engage the sympathetic nervous system
- Strengthen the diaphragm for increased efficiency
How to Breathe Deeply
An easy way to begin: sit with your feet flat on the floor or lie on your back. Place one hand on your high chest and the other over your rib area (above the abdomen). As you breathe deeply, your upper chest should be still. You will feel your entire torso (rib cage and abdomen) expand as you fully inflate the lungs. Now exhale completely, pushing the air out with the abdominal muscles. As you exhale—relax your face, shoulders, neck, chest, back, and anything else that is tense.
Why Diaphragmatic Breathing Is An Effective Pain and Anxiety-Management Tool
This is a review, but repetition helps us learn: The autonomic nervous system (responsible for involuntary functions like heart rate and digestion) can be divided into two subsystems—sympathetic and parasympathetic. The first keeps us safe; the second relaxes us and keeps the body in balance. Things that increase sympathetic tone include:
- Chest or shallow breathing
- Sugar—especially on an empty stomach (we aren’t sure how 0-calorie sweeteners impact the SNS, but some believe the body reacts to them like it does real sugar)
To understand chronic pain, think of the parasympathetic nervous system as the relaxation system. Using the diaphragm to breathe deeply activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calms us, and decreases muscle tension—the ultimate pain and anxiety-management tool. Things that increase parasympathetic tone:
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Gentle Stretching
- Calming scents
- Restorative sleep
- Being grateful
- Calming activities
- Light yoga
The nervous system needs to know that whatever is stressing us isn’t a predator, or it won’t calm down. Deep breathing gives our brain the message that we are not in physical danger.
As you focus on your breathing, it’s hard to focus on things that might be stressful. We hope you will give diaphragmatic breathing a try the next time you feel overwhelmed, angry, panicky, or in pain. You may feel like your lungs aren’t capable of taking in more air, as I did at first. But with practice, the diaphragm becomes stronger, and you will recognize the calming effect of deep breathing. Over time, you will discover that you automatically breathe deeper more of the time, which prevents your body and mind from being chronically stressed.
We hope you enjoyed reading Becky’s #1 Pain and Anxiety-Management Tool about breathing. For more information:
Watch this short video as Becky demonstrates diaphragmatic breathing.
For more of my personal tips on managing pain and anxiety, read 10 Ways to Reduce Fear and Anxiety in 2020 (and beyond!)
Here is more helpful information on breathing methods for reducing anxiety: Read 8 Breathing Exercises to Try When You Feel Anxious by Healthline.com