Hope for menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea) with breathingPosted: April 22, 2023 Filed under: behavior, biofeedback, Breathing/respiration, healing, health, meditation, Pain/discomfort, posture, relaxation, self-healing, stress management, Uncategorized | Tags: dysmenorrhea, Imagery, menstrual cramps, stroking, visualization 1 Comment
Adapted from: Peper, E., Chen, S., Heinz, N., & Harvey, R. (in press). Hope for menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea) with breathing. Biofeedback.
“I have always had extremely painful periods. They would get so painful that I would have to call in sick and take some time off from school. I have been to many doctors and medical professionals, and they told me there is nothing I could do. I am currently on birth control, and I still get some relief from the menstrual pain, but it would mess up my moods. I tried to do the diaphragmatic breathing so that I would be able to continue my life as a normal woman. And to my surprise it worked. I was simply blown away with how well it works. I have almost no menstrual pain, and I wouldn’t bloat so much after the diaphragmatic breathing.” -22 year old student
Each semester numerous students report that their cramps and dysmenorrhea symptoms decrease or disappear during the semester when they implement the relaxation and breathing practices that are taught in the semester long Holistic Health class. Given that so many young women suffer from dysmenorrhea, many young women could benefit by using this integrated approach as the first self-care intervention before relying on pain reducing medications or hormones to reduce pain or inhibit menstruation. Another 28-year-old student reported:
“Historically, my menstrual cramps have always required ibuprofen to avoid becoming distracting. After this class, I started using diaphragmatic breath after pain started for some relief. True benefit came when I started breathing at the first sign of discomfort. I have not had to use any pain medication since incorporating diaphragmatic breath work.”
This report describes students practicing self-regulation and effortless breathing to reduce stress symptoms, explores possible mechanisms of action, and suggests a protocol for reducing symptoms of menstrual cramps. Watch the short video how diaphragmatic breathing eliminated recurrent severe dysmenorrhea (pain and discomfort associated with menstruation).
Background: What is dysmenorrhea?
Dysmenorrhea is one of the most common conditions experienced by women during menstruation and affects more than half of all women who menstruate (Armour et al., 2019). Most commonly dysmenorrhea is defined by painful cramps in the lower abdomen often accompanied by pelvic pain that starts either a couple days before or at the start of menses. Symptoms also increase with stress (Wang et al., 2003) with pain symptoms usually decreasing in severity as women get older and, after pregnancy.
Economic cost of dysmenorrhea
Dysmenorrhea can significantly interfere with a women’s ability to be productive in their occupation and/or their education. It is “one of the leading causes of absenteeism from school or work, translating to a loss of 600 million hours per year, with an annual loss of $2 billion in the United States” (Itani et al, 2022). For students, dysmenorrhea has a substantial detrimental influence on academic achievement in high school and college (Thakur & Pathania, 2022). Despite the frequent occurrence and negative impact in women’s lives, many young women struggle without seeking or having access to medical advice or, without exploring non-pharmacological self-care approaches (Itani et al, 2022).
The most common pharmacological treatments for dysmenorrhea are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (e.g., Ibuprofen, Aspirin, and Naproxen Sodium) along with hormonal contraceptives. NSAIDs act by preventing the action of cyclooxygenase which prevents the production of prostaglandins. Itani et al (2022) suggested that prostaglandin production mechanisms may be responsible for the disorder. Hormonal contraceptives also prevent the production of prostaglandins by suppressing ovulation and endometrial proliferation.
The pharmacological approach is predominantly based upon the model that increased discomfort appears to be due to an increase in intrauterine secretion of prostaglandins F2α and E2 that may be responsible for the pain that defines this condition (Itani et al, 2022). Pharmaceuticals which influence the presence of prostaglandins do not cure the cause but mainly treat the symptoms.
Treatment with medications has drawbacks. For example, NSAIDs are associated with adverse gastrointestinal and neurological effects and also are not effective in preventing pain in everyone (Vonkeman & van de Laar, 2010). Hormonal contraceptives also have the possibility of adverse side effects (ASPH, 2023). Acetaminophen is another commonly used treatment; however, it is less effective than other NSAID treatments.
Self-regulation strategies to reduce stress and influence dysmenorrhea
Common non-pharmacological treatments include topical heat application and exercise. Both non-medication approaches can be effective in reducing the severity of pain. According to Itani et al. (2022), the success of integrative holistic health treatments can be attributed to “several mechanisms, including increasing pelvic blood supply, inhibiting uterine contractions, stimulating the release of endorphins and serotonin, and altering the ability to receive and perceive pain signals.”
Although less commonly used, self-regulation strategies can significantly reduce stress levels associated menstrual discomfort as well as reduce symptoms. More importantly, they do not have adverse side effects, but the effectiveness of the intervention varies depending on the individual.
- Autogenic Training (AT), is a hundred year old treatment approach developed by the German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz that involves three 15 minute daily practice of sessions, resulted in a 40 to 70 percent decrease of symptoms in patient suffering from primary and secondary dysmenorrhea (Luthe & Schultz, 1969). In a well- controlled PhD dissertation, Heczey (1978) compared autogenic training taught individually, autogenic training taught in a group, autogenic training plus vaginal temperature training and a no treatment control in a randomized controlled study. All treatment groups except the control group reported a decrease in symptoms and the most success was with the combined autogenic training and vaginal temperature training in which the subjects’ vaginal temperature increased by .27 F degrees.
- Progressive muscle relaxation developed by Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s and imagery are effective treatments for dysmenorrhea (Aldinda et al., 2022; Chesney & Tasto, 1975; Çelik, 2021; Jacobson, 1938; Proctor et al., 2007).
- Rhythmic abdominal massage as compared to non-treatment reduces dysmenorrhea symptoms (Suryantini, 2022; Vagedes et al., 2019):
- Biofeedback strategies such as frontalis electromyography feedback (EMG) and peripheral temperature training (Hart, Mathisen, & Prater, 1981); trapezius EMG training (Balick et al, 1982); lower abdominal EMG feedback training and relaxation (Bennink, Hulst, & Benthem, 1982); and integrated temperature feedback and autogenic training (Dietvorts & Osborne, 1978) all successfully reduced the symptoms of dysmenorrhea.
- Breathing relaxation for 5 to 30 minutes resulted in a decrease in pain or the pain totally disappeared in adolescents (Hidayatunnafiah et al., 2022). While slow deep breathing in combination with abdominal massage is more effective than applying hot compresses (Ariani et al., 2020). Slow pranayama (Nadi Shodhan) breathing the quality of life and pain scores improved as compared to fast pranayama (Kapalbhati) breathing and improved quality of life and reduces absenteeism and stress levels (Ganesh et al. 2015). When students are taught slow diaphragmatic breathing, many report a reduction in symptoms compared to the controls (Bier et al., 2005).
Observations from Integrated stress management program
This study reports on changes in dysmenorrhea symptoms by students enrolled in a University Holistic Health class that included homework assignment for practicing stress awareness, dynamic relaxation, and breathing with imagery.
Respondents: 32 college women, average age 24.0 years (S.D. 4.5 years)
Procedure: Students were enrolled in a three-unit class in which they were assigned daily home practices which changed each week as described in the book, Make Health Happen (Peper, Gibney & Holt, 2002). The first five weeks consisted of the following sequence: Week 1 focused on monitoring one’s reactions to stressor; week 2 consisted of daily practice for 30 minutes of a modified progressive relaxation and becoming aware of bracing and reducing the bracing during the day; Week 3 consisted of practicing slow diaphragmatic breathing for 30 minutes a day and during the day becoming aware of either breath holding or shallow chest breath and then use that awareness as cue to shift to lower slower diaphragmatic breathing; week 4 focused on evoking a memory of wholeness and relaxing; and week 5 focused on learning peripheral hand warming.
During the class, students observed lectures about stress and holistic health and met in small groups to discuss their self-regulation experiences. During the class discussion, some women discussed postures and practices that were beneficial when experiencing menstrual discomfort, such as breathing slowly while lying on their back, focusing on slow abdominal awareness in which their abdomen expanded during inhalation and contracted during exhalation. While exhaling they focused on imagining a flow of air initially going through their arms and then through their abdomen, down their legs and out their feet. This kinesthetic feeling was enhanced by first massaging down the arm while exhaling and then massaging down their abdomen and down their thighs when exhaling. In most cases, the women also experienced that their hands and feet warmed. In addition, they were asked to shift to slower diaphragmatic breathing whenever they observed themselves gasping, shallow breathing or holding their breath. After five weeks, the students filled out a short assessment questionnaire in which they rated the change in dysmenorrhea symptoms since the beginning of the class.
About two-thirds of all respondents reported a decrease in overall discomfort symptoms. In addition to any ‘treatment as usual’ (TAU) strategies already being used (e.g. medications or other treatments such as NSAIDs or birth control pills), 91% (20 out 22 women) who reported experiencing dysmenorrhea reported a decrease in symptoms when they practiced the self-regulation and diaphragmatic breathing techniques as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Self-report in dysmenorrhea symptoms after 5 weeks.
Many students reported that their symptoms were significantly reduced and they could be more productive. Generally, the more they practiced the relaxation and breathing self-regulation skills, the more they experienced a decrease in symptoms. The limitation of this report is that it is an observational study; however, the findings are similar to those reported by earlier self-care and biofeedback approaches. This suggests that women should be taught the following simple self-regulation strategies as the first intervention to prevent and when they experience dysmenorrhea symptoms.
Why would breathing reduce dysmenorrhea?
Many women respond by ‘curling up’ a natural protective defense response when they experience symptoms. This protective posture increases abdominal and pelvic muscle tension, inhibits lymph and blood flow circulation, increases shallow breathing rate, and decreases heart rate variability. Intentionally relaxing the abdomen with slow lower breathing when lying down with the legs extended is often the first step in reducing discomfort.
By focusing on diaphragmatic breathing with relaxing imagery, it is possible to restore abdominal expansion during inhalation and slight constriction during exhalation. This dynamic breathing while lying supine would enhance abdominal blood and lymph circulation as well as muscle relaxation (Peper et al., 2016). While practicing, participants were asked to wear looser clothing that did not constrict the waist to allow their abdomen to expand during inhalation; since, waist constriction by clothing (designer jean syndrome) interferes with abdominal expansion. Allowing the abdomen to fully extend also increased acceptance of self, that it was okay to let the abdomen expand instead of holding it in protectively. The symptoms were reduced most likley by a combination of the following factors.
- Abdominal movement is facilitated during the breathing cycle. This means reducing the factors that prevent the abdomen expanding during inhalation or constricting during exhalation (Peper et al., 2016).
- Eliminate‘Designer jean syndrome’ (the modern girdle). Increase the expansion of your abdomen by loosening the waist belt, tight pants or slimming underwear (MacHose & Peper, 1991).
- Accept yourself as you are. Allow your stomach to expand without pulling it in.
- Free up learned disuse: Allow the abdomen to expand and constrict instead of inhibiting movement to avoid pain that occurred following a prior abdominal injury/surgery (e.g., hernia surgery, appendectomy, or cesarean operation), abdominal pain (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome, recurrent abdominal pain, ulcers, or acid reflux), pelvic floor pain (e.g., pelvic floor pain, pelvic girdle pain, vulvodynia, or sexual abuse).
- The ‘defense response’ is reduced. Many students described that they often would curl up in a protective defense posture when experiencing menstrual cramps. This protective defense posture would maintain pelvic floor muscle contractions and inhibit blood and lymph flow in the abdomen, increase shallow rapid thoracic breathing and decrease pCO2 which would increase vasoconstriction and muscle constriction (Peper et al., 2015; Peper et al., 2016). By having the participant lie relaxed in a supine position with their legs extended while practicing slow abdominal breathing, the pelvic floor and abdominal wall muscles can relax and thereby increase abdominal blood and lymph circulation and parasympathetic activity. The posture of lying down implies feeling safe which is a state that facilitates healing.
- The pain/fear cycle is interrupted. The dysmenorrhea symptoms may trigger more symptoms because the person anticipates and reacts to the discomfort. The breathing and especially the kinesthetic imagery where the attention goes from the abdomen and area of discomfort to down the legs and out the feet acts as a distraction technique (not focusing on the discomfort).
- Support sympathetic-parasympathetic balance. The slow breathing and kinesthetic imagery usually increases heart rate variability and hand and feet temperature and supports sympathetic parasympathetic balance.
- Interrupt the classical conditioned response of the defense reaction. For some young girls, the first menstruation occurred unexpectedly. All of a sudden, they bled from down below without any understanding of what is going on which could be traumatic. For some this could be a defense reaction and a single trial condition response (somatic cues of the beginning of menstruation triggers the defense reaction). Thus, when the girl later experiences the initial sensations of menstruation, the automatic conditioned response causes her to tense and curl up which would amplify the discomfort. Informal interviews with women suggests that those who experienced their first menstruation experience as shameful, unexpected, or traumatic (“I thought I was dying”) thereafter framed their menstruation negatively. They also tended to report significantly more symptoms than those women who reported experiencing their first menstruation positively as a conformation that they have now entered womanhood.
How to integrate self-care to reduce dysmenorrhea
Be sure to consult your healthcare provider to rule out treatable underlying conditions before implementing learning effortless diaphragmatic breathing.
- Allow the abdomen to expand during inhalation and become smaller during exhalation. This often means, loosen belt and waist constriction, acceptance of allowing the stomach to be larger and reversing learned disuse and protective response caused by stress.
- Master diaphragmatic breathing (see: Peper & Tibbetts, 1994 and the blogs listed at the end of the article).
- Practice slow effortless diaphragmatic breathing lying down with warm water bottle on stomach in a place that feels safe.
- Include kinesthetic imagery as you breathe at about 6 breaths per minute (e.g. slowly inhale for 4 or 5 seconds and then exhale for 5 or 6 seconds, exhaling slightly longer than inhaling). Imaging that when you exhale you can sense healing energy flow through your abdomen, down the legs and out the feet.
- If possible, integrate actual touch with the exhalation can provide added benefit. Have a partner first stroke or massage down the arms from the shoulder to your fingertips as you exhale and, then on during next exhalation stroke gently from your abdomen down your legs and feet. Stroke in rhythm the exhalation.
- Exhale slowly and shift to slow and soft diaphragmatic breathing each time you become aware of neck and shoulder tension, breath holding, shallow breathing, or anticipating stressful situations. At the same time imagine /sense when exhaling a streaming going through the abdomen and out the feet when exhaling. Do this many times during the day.
- Practice and apply general stress reduction skills into daily life since stress can increase symptoms. Anticipate when stressful event could occur and implement stress reducing strategies.
- Be respectful of the biological changes that are part of the menstrual cycle. In some cases adjust your pace and slow down a bit during the week of the menstrual cycle; since, the body needs time to rest and regenerate. Be sure to get adequate amount of rest, hydration, and nutrition to optimize health.
- Use self-healing imagery and language to transform negative association with menstruation to positive associations (e.g., “curse” to confirmation “I am healthy”).
There are many ways to alleviate dysmenorrhea. Women can find ways to anticipate and empower themselves by practicing stress reduction, wearing more comfortable clothing, using heat compression, practicing daily diaphragmatic breathing techniques, visualizing relaxed muscles, and positive perception towards menstrual cycles to reduce the symptoms of dysmenorrhea. These self-regulation methods should be taught as a first level intervention to all young women starting in middle and junior high school so that they are better prepared for the changes that occur as they age.
“I have been practicing the breathing techniques for two weeks prior and I also noticed my muscles, in general, are more relaxed. Of course, I also avoided the skinny jeans that I like to wear and it definitely helped.
I have experienced a 90% improvement from my normal discomfort. I was still tired – and needed more rest and sleep but haven’t experienced any “terrible” physical discomfort. Still occasionally had some sharp pains or bloating but minor discomfort, unlike some days when I am bedridden and unable to move for half a day. – and this was a very positive experience for me “ — Singing Chen (Chen, 2023)
Useful blogs to learn diaphragmatic breathing
Aldinda, T. W., Sumarni, S., Mulyantoro, D. K., & Azam, M. (2022). Progressive muscle relaxation application (PURE App) for dysmenorrhea. Medisains Jurnal IlmiahLlmiah LLmu-LLmu Keshatan, 20(2), 52-57. https://doi.org/10.30595/medisains.v20i2.14351
Ariani, D., Hartiningsih, S.S., Sabarudin, U. Dane, S. (2020). The effectiveness of combination effleurage massage and slow deep breathing technique to decrease menstrual pain in university students. Journal of Research in Medical and Dental Science, 8(3), 79-84. https://www.jrmds.in/articles/the-effectiveness-of-combination-effleurage-massage-and-slow-deep-breathing-technique-to-decrease-menstrual-pain-in-university-stu-53607.html
Armour, M., Parry, K., Manohar, N., Holmes, K., Ferfolja, T., Curry, C., MacMillan, F., & Smith, C. A. (2019). The prevalence and academic impact of dysmenorrhea in 21,573 young women: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of women’s health, 28(8), 1161-1171.https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2018.7615
ASPH. (2023). Estrogen and Progestin (Oral Contraceptives). MedlinePlus. Assessed March 3, 2023. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a601050.html
Balick, L., Elfner, L., May. J., Moore, J.D. (1982). Biofeedback treatment of dysmenorrhea. Biofeedback Self Regul, 7(4), 499-520. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00998890
Bennink, C.D., Hulst, L.L. & Benthem, J.A. (1982). The effects of EMG biofeedback and relaxation training on primary dysmenorrhea. J Behav Med, 5(3), 329-341.https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00846160
Bier, M., Kazarian, D. & Peper, E. (2005). Reducing PMS through biofeedback and breathing. Poster presentation at the 36th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Abstract published in: Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 30 (4), 411-412.
Çelik, A.S. & Apay, S.E. (2021). Effect of progressive relaxation exercises on primary dysmenorrhea in Turkish students: A randomized prospective controlled trial. Complement Ther Clin Pract, Feb 42,101280. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2020.101280
Chen, S. (2023). Diaphragmatic breathing reduces dysmenorrhea symptoms-a testimonial. YouTube. Accessed March 3, 2023. https://youtu.be/E45iGymVe3U
De Sanctis, V., Soliman, A., Bernasconi, S., Bianchin, L., Bona, G., Bozzola, M., Buzi, F., De Sanctis, C., Tonini, G., Rigon, F., & Perissinotto, E. (2015). Primary Dysmenorrhea in Adolescents: Prevalence, Impact and Recent Knowledge. Pediatr Endocrinol Rev. 13(2), 512-20. PMID: 26841639. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26841639/
De Sanctis, V., Soliman, A. T., Daar, S., Di Maio, S., Elalaily, R., Fiscina, B., & Kattamis, C. (2020). Prevalence, attitude and practice of self-medication among adolescents and the paradigm of dysmenorrhea self-care management in different countries. Acta Bio Medica: Atenei Parmensis, 91(1), 182. https://doi.org/10.23750/abm.v91i1.9242
Dietvorst, T.F. & Osborne, D. (1978). Biofeedback-Assisted Relaxation Training
for Primary Dysmenorrhea: A Case Study. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, 3(3), 301-305. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00999298
Chesney, M. A., & Tasto, D. L. (1975).The effectiveness of behavior modification with spasmodic and congestive dysmenorrhea. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 13, 245-253. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(75)90029-7
Ganesh, B.R., Donde, M.P., & Hegde, A.R. (2015). Comparative study on effect of slow and fast phased pranayama on quality of life and pain in physiotherapy girls with primary dysmenorrhea: Randomize clinical trial. International Journal of Physiotherapy and Research, 3(2), 960-965. https://doi.org/10.16965/ijpr.2015.115
Hart, A.D., Mathisen, K.S. & Prater, J.S. A comparison of skin temperature and EMG training for primary dysmenorrhea. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation 6, 367–373 (1981). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01000661
Heczey, M. D. (1978). Effects of biofeedback and autogenic training on menstrual experiences: relationship among anxiety, locus of control and dysmenorrhea. City University of New York ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 7805763. https://www.proquest.com/openview/088e0d68511b5b59de1fa92dec832cc8/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
Hidayatunnafiah, F., Mualifah, L., Moebari, M., & Iswantiningsih, E. (2022). The Effect of Relaxation Techniques in Reducing Dysmenorrhea in Adolescents. The International Virtual Conference on Nursing. in The International Virtual Conference on Nursing, KnE Life Sciences, 473–480. https://doi.org/10.18502/kls.v7i2.10344
Itani, R., Soubra, L., Karout, S., Rahme, D., Karout, L., & Khojah, H.M.J. (2022). Primary Dysmenorrhea: Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, and Treatment Updates. Korean J Fam Med, 43(2), 101-108. https://doi.org/10.4082/kjfm.21.0103
Jacobson, E. (1938). Progressive Relaxation: A Physiological and Clinical Investigation of Muscular States and Their Significance in Psychology and Medical Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Ju, H., Jones, M., & Mishra, G. (2014). The prevalence and risk factors of dysmenorrhea. Epidemiol Rev, 36, 104-13. https://doi.org/10.1093/epirev/mxt009
Karout, S., Soubra, L., Rahme, D. et al. Prevalence, risk factors, and management practices of primary dysmenorrhea among young females. BMC Women’s Health 21, 392 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-021-01532-w
Iacovides, S., Avidon,I, & Baker, F.C. (2015).What we know about primary dysmenorrhea today: a critical review, Human Reproduction Update, 21(6), 762–778. https://doi.org/10.1093/humupd/dmv039
Luthe, W. & Schultz, J.H. (1969). Autogenic Therapy, Volume II Medical Applications. New York: Grune & Stratton, pp144-148.
MacHose, M. & Peper, E. (1991). The effect of clothing on inhalation volume. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, 16(3), 261–265. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01000020
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.1.03
Peper, E., Gibney, H. K. & Holt, C. (2002). Make Health Happen. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt. ISBN: 978-0787293314 https://he.kendallhunt.com/make-health-happen
Peper, E., Gilbert, C.D., Harvey, R. & Lin, I-M. (2015). Did you ask about abdominal surgery or injury? A learned disuse risk factor for breathing dysfunction. Biofeedback. 34(4), 173-179. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.06
Peper, E. & Tibbetts, V. (1994). Effortless diaphragmatic breathing. Physical Therapy Products. 6(2), 67-71. Also in: Electromyography: Applications in Physical Therapy. Montreal: Thought Technology Ltd. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/peper-and-tibbets-effortless-diaphragmatic.pdf
Proctor, M. & Farquhar, C. (2006). Diagnosis and management of dysmenorrhoea. BMJ. 13, 332(7550), 1134-8. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7550
Proctor, M.L, Murphy, P.A., Pattison, H.M., Suckling, J., & Farquhar, C.M. (2007). Behavioural interventions for primary and secondary dysmenorrhoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, (3):CD002248. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD002248.pub3
Suryantini, N. P. (2022). Effleurage Massage: Alternative Non-Pharmacological Therapy in Decreasing Dysmenorrhea Pain. Women, Midwives and Midwifery, 2(3), 41-50. https://wmmjournal.org/index.php/wmm/article/view/71/45
Thakur, P. & Pathania, A.R. (2022). Relief of dysmenorrhea – A review of different types of pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments. MaterialsToday: Proceedings.18, Part 5, 1157-1162. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matpr.2021.08.207
Vagedes, J., Fazeli, A., Boening, A., Helmert, E., Berger, B. & Martin, D. (2019). Efficacy of rhythmical massage in comparison to heart rate variability biofeedback in patients with dysmenorrhea—A randomized, controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 42, 438-444. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2018.11.009
Vonkeman, H.E. & van de Laar, M,A. (2010). Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: adverse effects and their prevention, Semin Arthritis Rheum, 39(4), 294-312. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.semarthrit.2008.08.001
Wang, L., Wand, X., Wang, W., Chen, C. Ronnennberg, A.G., Guang, W. Huang, A. Fang, Z. Zang, T., Wang, L. & Xu, X. (2003).Stress and dysmenorrhoea: a population based prospective study. Occupation and Environmental Medicine, 61(12). http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/oem.2003.012302
Compassion supports healing: Case report how a “bad eye” became an “amazing eye”*Posted: April 11, 2023 Filed under: behavior, cognitive behavior therapy, healing, health, mindfulness, Pain/discomfort, self-healing, stress management, Uncategorized, vision | Tags: compassion, self-image 1 Comment
Erik Peper, PhD and Dana Yirmiyahu
“I completely changed my perception of having a bad eye, to having an amazing eye. After two months, my eye is totally normal and healthy”
When experiencing chronic discomfort or reduced function, we commonly describe that part of our body that causes problems as broken or bad. Sometimes we even wish that it did not exist. In other cases, especially if there is pain or disfigurement, the person may attempt to dissociate from that body part. The language the person uses creates a graphic imagery that may impact the healing process; since, language can also be seen as a self-hypnotic suggestion.
The negative labeling, plus being disgusted or frustrated with that part of the body that is the cause of discomfort, often increases stress, tension and sympathetic activity. This reduces our self-healing potential. In many cases, the language is both the description and the prognosis-a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the description is negative and judgmental, it may interfere with the healing/treatment process. The negative language may activate the nocebo process that inhibits regeneration. On the other hand, positive affirming language may implicitly activate the placebo process that enhances healing.
By reframing the experience as positive and appreciating what the problem area of the body had done for you in the past as well as incorporating a healing compassionate process, healing is supported. Our limiting beliefs limit our possibilities. See the TED talk, A broken body isn’t a broken person, by Janine Shepherd (2014) who, after a horrendous accident and being paralyzed, became an acrobatic pilot instructor. Another example of a remarkable recovery is that of Madhu Anziani. After falling from a second floor window, he was a quadriplegic and used Reiki, toning, self-compassion and hope to improve his health. He reframed the problem as an opportunity for growth. He can now walk, talk and play the most remarkable music (Anziani and Peper, 2021).
When a person can focus on what they can do instead of focusing on what they cannot do or on their suffering, pain may be reduced. For example, Jill Cosby describes undergoing two surgeries to replace her shattered L3 with a metal “cage” and fused this cage to the L4 and L2 vertebrae with bars. She used imagery to eliminate the pains in her back and stopped her pain medications (Peper et al., 2022). The healing process is similar to how children develop, growth, and learn–a process that is promoted through playfulness and support with an openness to possibilities.
Healing only goes forwards in time
After an injury, most people want to be the same as they were before the injury, and they keep comparing themselves to how they were. The person can never be what they were in the past, butthey can be different and even better.. Time flows only in a forward direction, and the person already has been changed by the experience. Instead, the person explores ways to accept where they are, appreciate how much the problem area has done for them in the past, and continue to work to improve. This is a dynamic process in which the person appreciates the very small positive changes that are occurring without setting limits on how much change can occur.
A useful tool while working with clients is to explore ways by which they can genuinely transform their negative beliefs and self-talk about the problem to appreciation and growth. This process is illustrated in the following report about the rapid healing of a 15-year problem with an eye that had become smaller following severe corneal abrasion.
On January 18th, 2023, I attended a workshop/ lecture by Professor Erik Peper.
During the break, I spoke to him and expressed my concern regarding my right eye. 15 years ago, the cornea of my eye was accidently scratched by my 3-year-old daughter. The eye suffered a trauma and was treated at the hospital. In addition, I had a patch over my eye for 3 weeks and suffered extrusion pain during the first 2 weeks. A scar remained on my eye, and doctors were not able to say if it would be permanent or whether the eye would heal itself eventually. An invasive operation was also suggested, which I refused. The trauma affected my eyesight for a few months, but after a year, the scar was gone and physically no permanent damage has remained.
Although it was certainly determined that my eye had healed completely, it didn’t feel that way at all. I always considered it ‘my bad eye’ and suffered irritation and pain every time I experienced tiredness, anxiety, or any other emotional discomfort. My eye was the first and only organ to reflect pain/itchiness/irritation. Over time, my eye ‘shrank’ as well. It became visibly smaller and it felt tense at all times.
For 15 years, that was my reality! I coped with it and haven’t thought of it much, until January 18, when I attended the workshop.
Professor Peper asked me to the front of the stage when we returned from break and conducted an exercise with me, where I used my imagination and words to comfort my eye and embrace it rather than call it ‘the defective/bad eye’. He pointed out that if you only describe your children as bad or evil, how can you expect them to grow? Then, he explored with me a few exercises such as evoking self-healing imagery. The self-healing imagery did not totally resonate; however, I felt I just needed to hug my eye. I thanked my eye for its being and stroked it gently in my mind. On stage and during the rest of the lecture I felt a sense of comfort. I felt if the muscles around my eye had finally loosened–a feeling I haven’t experienced for years. I continued to follow the instructions I got at the workshop for a couple of days, but unfortunately, I did not persist, and the negative sensations returned.
On a follow-up zoom meeting 10 days after the lecture with Prof. Peper, I received additional tools to practice ‘eye physiotherapy’ as well as mindfulness regarding the eye. This practice consisted of closing my eyes and covering the non-problem eye and then as I exhaled gently and softly opening my eyes, opening them more and more while looking all around. I completely changed my perception of having a bad eye, to having ‘an amazing eye’. At first talking to it didn’t come naturally to me but as I persisted it became easier and easier. I did it in the car, before going to sleep and when waking up in the morning. In addition, I practiced the exercises I got over zoom, where I covered my left eye (the undamaged one) and had my right eye look up and down to both sides.
It has been about three months since this zoom meeting and I am awed by the results. My eye has opened more, and no longer feels shrunk and small, I rarely feel negative sensations in it and when I do, I immediately know how to handle it.
I can say that attending this workshop has definitely been a life-changing event for my amazing right eye and for me.
Why did the healing occur?
The “bad eye” symptoms were most likely caused by “learned disuse”; namely, the chronic eye tension was the result of the protective response to reduce the discomfort after the injury to the cornea (Uswatte & Taub, 2005). After the injury and medical treatment, she would have unknowingly tensed her muscles around the eye to protect it. This process occurs automatically without conscious awareness. This protective response became her “new normal” and once her eye had healed, the bracing continued. The bracing pattern was amplified by the ongoing self-labeling of having a “bad eye.” By accepting the eye as it was, giving it compassionate caring and support, and following up with simple eye movement exercises to allow the eye to rediscover and experience the complete range of motion, the symptoms disappeared.
What can we take home from this case example?
Listen to the language a client uses to describe their problem. Does the language implicitly limit recovery, growth and hope (e.g., I will always have the problem)? Does the language inhibit caring and compassion for the problem area (e.g., I’m frustrated, angry, disgusted)? If that is the case, explore ways to reframe the language and emotional tone. A useful strategy is to incorporate self-healing imagery: the person first inspects the problem area, next imagines how it would look when it is healthy, and finally creates self-healing imagery that transforms what was observed to become well and whole. Then, each moment the client’s attention is drawn to the problem, he or she evokes the self-healing imagery (Peper, Gibney, & Holt, 2002). In many cases, combining this imagery with slower breathing to reduce stress promotes healing.
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Uswatte, G. & Taub, E. (2005). Implications of the Learned Nonuse Formulation for Measuring Rehabilitation Outcomes: Lessons From Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy. Rehabilitation Psychology, 50(1), 34-42. https://doi.org/10.1037/0090-55184.108.40.206
*I thank Cathy Holt, MPH, for her supportive feedback.