One of the most important discoveries I've made on my journey through chronic pain is the importance of breath: how we use it and misuse it.
Once I was injured, breathing hurt. So, naturally, I tried to stop breathing as much. I took shallow breaths, held my breath, did whatever I could to keep from feeling more pain when I breathed. At first, I wasn't even aware that I was doing this.
As The Saying Goes, Don't Hold Your Breath
So, I worked on developing my own approach to breath work. First, I noticed my breathing patterns while in pain, and what wasn’t working.
The two most important ways I found that I was misusing breath were 1) by holding my breath often in an effort to stop the pain, and 2) by using my breath to try and push the pain out of my body. This is a variant on holding the breath, which uses the held breath almost like a wall against the pain. I think if you check in with yourself when you’re in acute pain, you’ll find yourself doing one or both of these breathing patterns.
Once I’d established that I was impeding the flow of breath through the body in response to pain, I started deliberately exploring ways to release the breath gently so it could flow more naturally, thus bringing more oxygen and overall healing energy and relaxation into the body, and which, hopefully, wouldn’t create more pain in the process.
Letting Pain Breathe
Breathing Around Pain
Explore putting your awareness on the space around the pain in your body and imagine breathing through that space. This space could be in non painful parts of the body that surround the painful area, or it could feel like you’re breathing into a space outside of your physical body, if that’s the only pain free area. Putting your awareness on the pain free spaces as if you’re actually breathing through that space can help relax the painful area and ease up the amount of constriction and tenseness there. You’re effectively shifting your attention away from trying to stop the pain through holding the breath. So, you’re tricking your pain response habits a bit by choosing to put your attention on the breath as it moves through areas of less or no pain.
Breathing With Pain
Imagine breathing next to your pain, as in the first exercise, but this time you also have your awareness on the painful area and you’re imagining that your pain is breathing too. It’s as if both the pain free part of you and your pain are taking simultaneous breaths together.
Breathing Through Pain
Imagine sending your breath through your pain very, very gently, but not stopping and holding it when you feel the pain sensations. Just softly, softly breathe through the pain and out to the other side of it, imagining the breath passing through the pain itself - not trying to stop the pain, just passing through it, and perhaps creating a little more space there.
Giving Pain Breath
Now imagine that pain itself is doing the breathing. Breathe as the pain. This can be challenging to do without constricting and tightening up in fear. The last thing we usually want to do is give pain anything, but here we’re experimenting with giving it breath and space. Allow the pain to gently expand and contract with the breath, as if it had lungs, just very quietly breathing in and out, even if it’s very shallow.
If you work with the patterns that provide the most relief to you every day, you may find that your pain is gently releasing as the breath relaxes. Easing the pain even slightly through breath awareness awakens your body to the fact that pain can move, it can change, it can release, and that knowing is worth a lot when you’re living with ongoing pain. I found this to be true for me, and I encourage you to gently work with the breath to see if you can create some gentle release and relief for yourself as well.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this post constitutes medical advice and is not intended
as a substitute for the medical advice of physicians.
Sarah Anne Shockley has lived with nerve pain from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome since 2007. She is the author of The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom For Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain and Living Better While Living With Pain. She is a staff columnist for Pain News Network.