Using Your Brain to Your Advantage
Breathing is one of the only involuntary processes in the body that you can control voluntarily. Breathing patterns influence the nervous system and the brain’s control over bodily operations. Drawing breath in activates the sympathetic nervous system (i.e., our “flight and flight” responses) which causes the heart rate to rise, blood pressure to increase and the nervous system to excite. Breathing out activates the parasympathetic nervous system which slows the heart rate and allows the sphincter to relax (i.e., our “rest and recover” responses). The small pause between inhaling and exhaling helps us regulate these changes both physically and mentally (Van der Kolk, 2014). People who are hyper-aroused from sensations of pain (or who have anxiety issues surrounding their experiences of pain) are typically shallow breathers. They never fully take a deep breath in or exhale completely. This is in part because of their ongoing pain, but also because their amplified reactions to it have left them feeling nervous and agitated. This constant state of “flight or fight” leaves the person wearied and prevents physical and mental rest and recovery. This fatigue leads to more thoughts of dread and desperation, which further alters breathing patterns and continued experiences of pain (Van der Kolk, 2014). Retraining breathing patterns from shallow breathing to deep breathing can help change the brain’s (and body’s) involuntary (i.e., automatic) responses. Coaching clients to control their breathing (by taking long, slow, deep breaths in and out) when they experience physical sensations of pain can help them trigger a change in their nervous system and allow their system to “reset” (Sherrington, 2010).
The addition of positive affirmations and/or visualizations in combination with breathing awareness and control can also help clients change the way they experience pain. If physical sensations of pain produce thoughts that typically catastrophize the situation (e.g., thinking that they are never going to get better, believe the cause of their pain is not curable, etc.) teach them to strengthen their mindset using affirmations like, “This pain/condition is temporary. I am doing all the right exercises to strengthen my body and it will eventually get better”. Work with clients to develop their own affirmations using their own vocabulary. This will empower them to visualize an alternative way of thinking and help cement these new thoughts and emotions by putting them into words (Kushner, 2009).
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