In the video interview recorded at the 2018 Conference of the New Psychology Association, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland, Erik Peper, PdD, defines biofeedback and suggests three simple breathing and imagery approaches that we can all apply to reduce pain, resentment and improve well-being.
“Although difficult and going against my natural reaction to curl up in the response to my cramps, I stretched out on my back and breathed slowly so that my stomach got bigger with each inhalation. My menstrual pain slowly decreased and disappeared.
“For as long as I remember, I had stomach problems and when I went to doctors, they said, I had acid reflux. I was prescribed medication and nothing worked. The problem of acid reflux got really bad when I went to college and often interfered with my social activities. After learning diaphragmatic breathing so that my stomach expanded instead of my chest, I am free of my symptoms and can even eat the foods that previously triggered the acid reflux.”
In the late 19th earlier part of the 20th century many women were diagnosed with Neurasthenia. The symptoms included fatigue, anxiety, headache, fainting, light headedness, heart palpitation, high blood pressure, neuralgia and depression. It was perceived as a weakness of the nerves. Even though the diagnosis is no longer used, similar symptoms still occur and are aggravated when the abdomen is constricted with a corset or by stylish clothing (see Fig 1).
Figure 1. Wearing a corset squeezes the abdomen.
The constricted waist compromises the functions of digestion and breathing. When the person inhales, the abdomen cannot expand as the diaphragm is flattening and pushing down. Thus, the person is forced to breathe more shallowly by lifting their ribs which increases neck and shoulder tension and the risk of anxiety, heart palpitation, and fatigue. It also can contribute to abdominal discomfort since abdomen is being squeezed by the corset and forcing the abdominal organs upward. It was the reason why the room on top of stairs in the old Victorian houses was call the fainting room (Melissa, 2015).
During inhalation the diaphragm flattens and attempts to descend which increases the pressure of the abdominal content. In some cases this causes the stomach content to be pushed upward into the esophagus which could result in heart burn and acid reflux. To avoid this, health care providers often advice patients with acid reflux to sleep on a slanted bed with the head higher than their feet so that the stomach content flows downward. However, they may not teach the person to wear looser clothing that does not constrict the waist and prevent designer jean syndrome. If the clothing around the waist is loosened, then the abdomen may expand in all directions in response to the downward movement of the diaphragm during inhalation and not squeeze the stomach and thereby pushing its content upward into the esophagus.
Most people have experienced the benefits of loosening the waist when eating a large meal. The moment the stomach is given the room to spread out, you feel more comfortable. If you experienced this, ask yourself, “Could there be a long term cost of keeping my waist constricted?” A constricted waist may be as harmful to our health as having the emergency brake on while driving for a car.
We are usually unaware that shallow rapid breathing in our chest can contribute to symptoms such as anxiety, neck and shoulder tension, heart palpitations, headaches, abdominal discomfort such as heart burn, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, dysmenorrhea and even reduced fertility (Peper, Mason, & Huey, 2017; Domar, Seibel, & Benson, 1990).
Assess whether you are at risk for faulty breathing
Stand up and observe what happens when you take in a big breath and then exhale. Did you feel taller when you inhaled and shorter/smaller when you exhaled?
If the answer is YES, your breathing pattern may compromise your health. Most likely when you inhaled you lifted your chest, slightly arched your back, tightened and raised your shoulders, and lifted your head up while slightly pulling the stomach in. When you exhaled, your body relaxed and collapsed downward and even the stomach may have relaxed and expanded. This is a dysfunctional breathing pattern and the opposite of a breathing pattern that supports health and regeneration as shown in figure 2.
Figure 2. Incorrect and correct breathing. Source unknown.
Observe babies, young children, dogs, and cats when they are peaceful. The abdomen is what moves during breathing. While breathing in, the abdomen expands in all 360 degrees directions and when breathing out, the abdomen constricts and comes in. Similarly when dogs or cats are lying on their sides, their stomach goes up during inhalation and goes down during exhalation.
Many people tend to breathe shallowly in their chest and have forgotten—or cannot– allow their abdomen and lower ribs to widen during inhalation (Peper et al, 2016). These factors include:
- Constriction by the modern corset called “Spanx” to slim the figure or by wearing tight fitting pants. In either case the abdominal content is pushed upward and interferes with normal healthy breathing.
- Maintaining a slim figure by pulling the abdomen (I will look fat when my stomach expands; I will suck it in).
- Avoiding post-surgical abdominal pain by inhibiting abdominal movement. Numerous patients have unknowingly learned to shallowly breathe in their chest to avoid pain at the site of the incision of the abdominal surgery such as for hernia repair or a cesarean operation. This dysfunctional breathing became the new normal unless they actively practice diaphragmatic breathing.
- Slouching as we sit or watch digital screens or look down at our cell phone.
Observe how slouching affects the space in your abdomen.
When you shift from an upright erect position to a slouched or protective position the distance between your pubic bone and the bottom of the sternum (xiphoid process) is significantly reduced.
- Tighten our abdomen to protect ourselves from pain and danger as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Erect versus collapsed posture. There is less space for the abdomen to expand in the protective collapsed position. Reproduced by permission from Clinical Somatics (http://www.clinicalsomatics.ie/).
Regardless why people breathe shallowly in their chest or avoid abdominal and lower rib movement during breathing, by re-establishing normal diaphragmatic breathing many symptoms may be reduced. Numerous students have reported that when they shift to diaphragmatic breathing which means the abdomen and lower ribs expand during inhalation and come in during exhalation as shown in Figure 4, their symptoms such as acid reflux and menstrual cramp significantly decrease.
Figure 4. Diaphragmatic breathing. Reproduced from: www.devang.house/blogs/thejob/belly-breathing-follow-your-gut.
Reduce acid reflux
A 21-year old student, who has had acid reflux (GERD-gastroesophageal reflux diseases) since age 6, observed that she only breathed in her chest and that there were no abdominal movements. When she learned and practiced slower diaphragmatic breathing which allowed her abdomen to expand naturally during inhalation and reduce in size during exhalation her symptoms decreased. The image she used was that her lungs were like a balloon located in her abdomen. To create space for the diaphragm going down, she bought larger size pants so that her abdominal could spread out instead of squeezing her stomach (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Hydraulic model who inhaling without the abdomen expanding increases pressure on the stomach and possibly cause stomach fluids to be pushed into the esophagus.
She practiced diaphragmatic breathing many times during the day. In addition, the moment she felt stressed and tightened her abdomen, she interrupted this tightening and re-established abdominal breathing. Practicing this was very challenging since she had to accept that she would still be attractive even if her stomach expanded during inhalation. She reported that within two weeks her symptom disappeared and upon a year follow-up she has had no more symptoms For a detailed description how this successfully cured irritable bowel syndrome see: https://peperperspective.com/2017/06/23/healing-irritable-bowel-syndrome-with-diaphragmatic-breathing/
Take control of menstrual cramps
Numerous college students have reported that when they experience menstrual cramps, their natural impulse is to curl up in a protective cocoon. If instead they interrupted this natural protective pattern and lie relaxed on their back with their legs straight out and breathe diaphragmatically with their abdomen expanding and going upward during inhalation, they report a 50 percent decrease in discomfort (Gibney & Peper, 2003). For some the discomfort totally disappears when they place a warm pad on their lower abdomen and focused on breathing slowly about six breaths per minute so that the abdomen goes up when inhaling and goes down when exhaling. At the same time, they also imagine that the air would flow like a stream from their abdomen through their legs and out their feet while exhaling. They observed that as long as they held their abdomen tight the discomfort including the congestive PMS symptoms remained. Yet, the moment they practice abdominal breathing, the congestion and discomfort is decreased. Most likely the expanding and constricting of the abdomen during the diaphragmatic breathing acts as a pump in the abdomen to increase the lymph and venous blood return and improve circulation.
Breathing is the body-mind bridge and offers hope for numerous disorders. Slower diaphragmatic breathing with the corresponding abdomen movement at about six breaths per minute may reduce autonomic dysregulation. It has profound self-healing effects and may increase calmness and relaxation. At the same time, it may reduce heart palpitations, hypertension, asthma, anxiety, and many other symptoms.
DeVault, K.R. & Castell, D.O. (2005). Updated guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 100, 190-200.
Domar, A.D., Seibel, M.M., & Benson, H. (1990). The Mind/Body Program for Infertility: a new behavioral treatment approach for women with infertility. Fertility and sterility, 53(2), 246-249.
Gibney, H.K. & Peper, E. (2003). Taking control: Strategies to reduce hot flashes and premenstrual mood swings. Biofeedback, 31(3), 20-24.
Johnson, L.F. & DeMeester, T.R. (1981). Evaluation of elevation of the head of the bed, bethanechol, and antacid foam tablets on gastroesophageal reflux. Digestive Diseases Sciences, 26, 673-680. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7261830
Melissa. (2015). Why women fainted so much in the 19th century. May 20, 2015. Donloaded October 2, 1018. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/05/women-fainted-much-19th-century/
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.
Peper, E., Mason, L., Huey, C. (2017). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback. (45-4)
Most of us are aware that thoughts affect our body; however, we often overlook the impact of this effect. To demonstrate the power of visualization, participants are guided through a lemon imagery. In a study with 131 college students, 94% report an increase in salivation which is a parasympathetic nervous system response. The participants now know–not believe–that visualization affects physiology. Once salivation has been experienced, participants may apply other visualization techniques to change their physiology and behavior. Through visualization we communicate with our autonomic nervous system which can provide a matrix for self-healing and enhanced performance. In addition, the guided practice shows that almost everyone holds their breath when asked to tighten their muscles and some people have difficulty relaxing after tightening. Once aware, the person can and continue to breathe and relax the muscles. Enjoy the guided exercise, Mindbody connection: Lemon Imagery.
*I thank Paul Godina, Jung Lee and Lena Stampfli for participating in the videos.
Adapted from Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make Health Happen: Training Yourself to Create Wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt
Richard Harvey, PhD and Erik Peper, PhD
In a technologically modern world, many people have the option of spending 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week continuously interacting via telephone, text, work and personal emails or internet websites and various social media platforms such as Facebook, What’s App, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Snapchat. How many people do we know who work too many hours, watch too many episodes on digital screens, commute too many hours, or fill loneliness with online versions of retail therapy? In the rush of work-a-day survival as well as being nudged and bombarded with social media notifications, or advertisements for material goods, we forget to nurture meaningful friendships and family relationships (Peper and Harvey, 2018). The following ‘values clarification’ practice may help us identify what is most important to us and help keep sight of those things that are most relevant in our lives (Hofmann, 2008; Knott, Ribar, & Duson, 1989; Twohig & Crosby, 2009;. Peper, 2014).
Give yourself about 12 minutes of uninterrupted time to do this practice. Do this practice by yourself, in a group, or with family and friends. Have a piece of paper ready. Be guided by the two video clips at the end of the blog. Begin with the Touch Relaxation and Regeneration Practice to relax and let go of thoughts and worries, then follow it with the Value Clarification Practice.
Touch Relaxation and Regeneration Practice
Turn off your cell phone and let other know not to interrupt for the next 12 minutes, then engage in the following six-minute relaxation exercise. If your attention wanders during the practice, then bring your attention back to the various sensations in your body.
- Sit comfortably, then lift your arms from your lap, holding them parallel to the floor and tighten your arms while making a fist in each hand. While holding your fists tightly closed, keep breathing for a total of 10 seconds before dropping the arms to your lap while you relax all of your muscles. Attend for 20 seconds to the changing sensations in arms and hands as they relax. If your attention wanders bring it back to the sensations in your arm and hands.
- Tighten your buttock muscles and bend your ankles so that the toes move upwards in a direction towards your knees. Keep breathing and hold your toes upwards for 10 seconds and then let the toes move down to the floor, letting go and relaxing all the muscles of the lower trunk and legs. Feel your knees widening and feel your buttock muscles relaxing. Continue attending to the body and muscle sensations for the next 20 seconds. If your attention wanders bring it back to the sensations in your body.
- Tighten your whole body by pressing your knees together, lifting your arms up from your lap, making a fist and wrinkling your face. Hold the tension while continuing to breath for 10 seconds. Let go and relax and feel the whole body sinking and relaxing and being supported by the chair for the next 20 seconds.
- Bring your right hand to your left shoulder. Over the next 10 seconds, inhale for three or four seconds and as you exhale for five or six seconds, with your right hand stroke down your left arm from your shoulder to past your hand. Imagine that the exhaled air is flowing through your arm and out your hand. Repeat at least once more.
- Bring your left hand to your right shoulder. Inhale for three or four seconds and as you exhale for five or six seconds with your left hand stroke down your right arm from your shoulder to past your hand. Imagine that the exhaled air is flowing through your arm and out your hand. Repeat at least once more.
- Bring both hands to the sides of your hips. Inhale for three or four seconds and as you exhale for five or six seconds stroke your legs with your hands from the hips to the ankles. Imagine that the exhaled air is flowing through your legs and out your feet. Repeat a least once more.
- Close your eyes and inhale for three or four seconds, then hold your breath for seven seconds slowly exhale for eight seconds. Imagine as you exhale the air flowing through your arms and out your hands and through your legs and out your feet. Continue breathing easily and slowly such as inhaling for three or four seconds, and out for five to seven seconds. If your attention wanders just bring it back to the sensations going down your arms and legs. Feel the relaxation and peacefulness.
- Take another deep breath and then stretch and continue with the Value Clarification
Value Clarification Practice
Get the paper and pen and do the following Value Clarification Practice.
- Quickly (e.g. 30-60 seconds) list the 10 most important things in your life. For the activity to work, the list must contain 10 important things that may be concrete or abstract, ranging from material things such as a smart phone or a car to immaterial things such as family, love, god, health… If you need to, break up a larger category into smaller pieces. For example, if one item on the list is family, and you only have seven items on the list, assuming you have a family of four, then identify separate family members in order to complete a list of 10 important things.
- To start off, in only 10 seconds, please cross off three items from the list, then explain why you removed those three. If done in a group of people turn to the person explain why you made these choices.
- Next, in only 10 seconds, please cross off three more, then explain why you kept what you kept. If done in a group of people turn to the person explain why you made these choices.
- Finally, in only 10 seconds, please cross off three more, then reveal the one most important thing on your list. Share your choice for the item you kept and how you felt while crossing items from the list or keeping them.
- When engaging with this type of values clarification practice, please remind yourself and others that the items on the list were never gone, they are always in your life to the extent that you can honor the presence of those things in your life.
We have done these exercises with thousands of student and adults. The most common final item on the list is family or an individual family member. Sometimes, categories such as health or god appear, however it is extremely rare that material items make it to the final round. For example, no one would report that their last item is their job, their bank account, their house, or their smart phone. It is common that people have difficulty choosing the last item on their list, often taking more than 10 seconds to choose. For example, they find that they cannot choose between eliminating individual family members. For those who find the activity too difficult, remind them that the exercise is voluntary and meant as a ‘thought experiment’ which they may stop at any time.
Reflect how much of your time is spent nurturing what is most important to you? In many cases we feel compelled to finish some employment priorities instead of making time for nurturing our family relationship. And when we become overwhelmed with work demands, we retreat to sooth our difficulties by checking our email or browsing social media rather than supporting the family connections that are so important to us.
Organize an action plan to honor and support your commitment to the items on your list that you value the most. If possible let other people know what you are doing.
- Describe in detail what you will do in real life and in real time in service to honor and support your relationships with the things that you value.
- Describe in detail what you will do, when you will do it, with whom you will do it, at what time you will do it, and anticipate what will get in the way of doing it. For example, how will you resolve any conflicts between what you plan and what you actually do when there is not enough time to carry out your plans?
- Schedule a time during the following week for feedback about your plans to honor and support the things you value.
Many people experience that it is challenging to make time to honor and support their primary values given the ongoing demands of daily living. To be congruent with our values means making ongoing choices such as listening and sharing experiences with your partner versus binging on videos or, using your smartphone for answering email or texting instead of watching your child play ball.
The values you previously identified are similar to those identified by patients who are in hospice and dying. For them as they look back on their lives, the five most common regret are (Ware, 2009; Ware, 2012):
- I wish I’d the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish I had let myself be happier.
Take the time to plan actions that support your identified values. Feel free to watch the following videos that guide you through the activities described here.
Hofmann, S.G. (2008). Acceptance and commitment therapy: New wave or Morita therapy?. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 15(4), 280-285. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2850.2008.00138.x
Knott, J.E., Ribar, M.C. & Duson, B.M. (1989). Thanatopics: Activities and Exercises for Confronting Death, Lexington Books: Lexington, MA. https://www.amazon.com/Thanatopics-Activities-Exercise-Confronting-Death/dp/066920871X
Peper, E. (October 19, 2014). Choices-Creating meaningful days. https://peperperspective.com/2014/10/19/choices-creating-meaningful-days/
Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2018). Digital addiction: increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. NeuroRegulation. 5(1),3–8. doi:10.15540/nr.5.1.3 http://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/18189/11842
Twohig, M.P. & Crosby, J.M. (2009). Values clarification. In: O’Donohue & W.T., Fisher, J.E., Eds. Cognitive behavior therapy: applying empirically supported techniques in your practice. Wiley: Hoeboken, N.J., p. 681-686.
Ware, B. (2009). Regrets of the dying. https://bronnieware.com/blog/regrets-of-the-dying/
Ware, B. (2012). The top five regrets of dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing. Hay House. ISBN: 978-1401940652
Breathing affects all aspects of your life. This invited keynote, Breathing and posture: Mind-body interventions to improve health, reduce pain and discomfort, was presented at the Caribbean Active Aging Congress, October 14, Oranjestad, Aruba. www.caacaruba.com
The presentation includes numerous practices that can be rapidly adapted into daily life to improve health and well-being.
Erik Peper, Lauren Mason and Cindy Huey
After having constant abdominal pain, severe cramps, and losing 15 pounds from IBS, I found myself in the hospital bed where all the doctors could offer me was morphine to reduce the pain. I searched on my smart phone for other options. I saw that abdominal breathing could help. I put my hands on my stomach and tried to expand it while I inhaled. All that happened was that my chest expanded and my stomach did not move. I practiced and practiced and finally, I could breathe lower. Within a few hours, my pain was reduced. I continued breathing this way many times. Now, two years later, I no longer have IBS and have regained 20 pounds.
– 21-year old woman who previously had severe IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome(IBS) affects between 7% to 21% of the general population and is a chronic condition. The symptoms usually include abdominal cramping, discomfort or pain, bloating, loose or frequent stools and constipation and can significantly reduce the quality of life (Chey et al, 2015). A precursor of IBS in children is called recurrent abdominal pain (RAP) which affects between 0.3 to 19% of school children (Chitkara et al, 2005). Both IBS and RAP appear to be functional illnesses, as no organic causes have been identified to explain the symptoms. In the USA, this results in more than 3.1 physician visits and 5.9 million prescriptions written annually. The total direct and indirect cost of these services exceeds $20 billion (Chey et al, 2015). Multiple factors may contribute to IBS, such as genetics, food allergies, previous treatment with antibiotics, severity of infection, psychological status and stress. More recently, changes in the intestinal and colonic microbiome resulting in small intestine bacterial overgrowth are suggested as another risk factor (Dupont, 2014).
Generally, standard medical treatments (reassurance, dietary manipulation and of pharmacological therapy) are often ineffective in reducing abdominal IBS and other abdominal symptoms (Chey et al, 2015), while complementary and alternative approaches such as relaxation and cognitive therapy are more effective than traditional medical treatment (Vlieger et, 2008). More recently, heart rate variability training to enhance sympathetic/ parasympathetic balance appears to be a successful strategy to treat functional abdominal pain (FAB) in children (Sowder et al, 2010). Sympathetic/parasympathetic balance can be enhanced by increasing heart rate variability (HRV), which occurs when a person breathes at their resonant frequency which is usually between 5-7 breaths per minute. For most people, it means breathing much slower, as slow abdominal breathing appears to be a self-control strategy to reduce symptoms of IBS, RAP and FAP.
This article describes how a young woman healed herself from IBS with slow abdominal breathing without any therapeutic coaching, reviews how slower diaphragmatic breathing (abdominal breathing) may reduce symptoms of IBS, explores the possibility that breathing is more than increasing sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, and suggests some self-care strategies to reduce the symptoms of IBS.
Healing IBS-a case report
After being diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome her Junior year of high school, doctors told Cindy her condition was incurable and could only be managed at best, although she would have it throughout her entire life. With adverse symptoms including excessive weight loss and depression, Cindy underwent monthly hospital visits and countless tests, all which resulted in doctors informing her that her physical and psychological symptoms were due to her untreatable condition known as IBS, of which no one had ever been cured. When doctors offered her what they believed to be the best option: morphine, something Cindy describes now as a “band-aid,” she was left feeling discouraged. Hopeless and alone in her hospital bed, she decided to take matters into her own hands and began to pursue other options. From her cell phone, Cindy discovered something called “diaphragmatic breathing,” a technique which involved breathing through the stomach. This strategy could help to bring warmth to the abdominal region by increasing blood flow throughout abdomen, thereby relieving discomfort of the bowel. Although suspicious of the scientific support behind this method, previous attempts at traditional western treatment had provided no benefit to recovery; therefore, she found no harm in trying. Lying back flat against the hospital bed, she relaxed her body completely, and began to breathe. Immediately, Cindy became aware that she took her breath in her chest, rather than her stomach. Pushing out all of her air, she tried again, this time gasping with inhalation. Delighted, she watched as air flooded into her stomach, causing it to rise beneath her hands, while her chest remained still. Over time, Cindy began to develop more awareness and control over her newfound strategy. While practicing, she could feel her stomach and abdomen becoming warmer. Cindy shares that for the first time in years, she felt relief from pain, causing her to cry from happiness. Later that day, she was released from the hospital, after denying any more pain medication from doctors.
Cindy continues to practice her diaphragmatic breathing as much as she can, anywhere at all, at the sign of pain or discomfort, as well as preventatively prior to what she anticipates will be a stressful situation. Since beginning her practice, Cindy says that her IBS is pretty much non-existent now. She no longer feels depressed about her situation due to her developed ability to manage her condition. Overall, she is much happier. Moreover, since this time two years ago, Cindy has gained approximately 20 pounds, which she attributes to eating a lot more. In regard to her success, she believes it was her drive, motivation, and willingness to dedicate herself fully to the breathing practice which allowed for her to develop skills and prosper. Although it was not natural for her to breathe in her stomach at first, a trait which she says she often recognizes in others, Cindy explains it was due to necessity which caused her to shift her previously-ingrained way of breathing. Upon publicly sharing her story with others for the first time, Cindy reflects on her past, revealing that she experienced shame for a long time as she felt that she had a weird condition, related to abnormal functions, which no one ever talks about. On the experience of speaking out, she affirms that it was very empowering, and hopes to encourage others coping with a situation similar to hers that there is in fact hope for the future. Cindy continues to feel empowered, confident, and happy after taking control of her own body, and acknowledges that her condition is a part of her, something of which she is proud.
Watch the in-depth interview with Cindy Huey in which she describes her experience of discovering diaphragmatic breathing and how she used this to heal herself of IBS
Video 1. Interview with Cindy Huey describing how she healed herself from IBS.
“Why should the body digest food or repair itself, when it will be someone else’s lunch” (paraphrased from Sapolsky (2004), Why zebras do not get ulcers).
From an evolutionary perspective, we were prey and needed to be on guard (vigilant) to the presence of predators. In the long forgotten past, the predators were tigers, snakes, and the carnivore for whom we were food as well as other people. Today, the same physiological response pathways are still operating, except that the pathways are now more likely to be activated by time urgency, work and family conflict, negative mental rehearsal and self-judgment. This is reflected in the common colloquial phrases: “It makes me sick to my stomach,” “I have no stomach for it,” “He is gutless,” “It makes me queasy,” “Butterflies in my stomach,” “Don’t get your bowels in uproar,” “Gut feelings’, or “Scared shitless.”
Whether conscious or unconscious, when threatened, our body reacts with a fight/flight/freeze response in which the blood flow is diverted from the abdomen to deep muscles used for propulsion. This results in peristalsis being reduced. At the same time the abdomen tends to brace to protect it from injury. In almost all cases, the breathing patterns shift to thoracic breathing with limited abdominal movement. As the breathing pattern is predominantly in the chest, the person increases the risk of hyperventilation because the body is ready to run or fight.
In our clinical observations, people with IBS, small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), abdominal discomfort, anxiety and panic, and abdominal pain tend to breathe more in their chest, and when asked to take breathe, they tend to inhale in their upper chest with little or no abdominal displacement. Almost anyone who experiences abdominal pain tends to hold the abdomen rigid as if the splinting could reduce the pain. A similar phenomenon is observed with female students experiencing menstrual cramps. They tend to curl up to protect themselves and breathe shallowly in their chest instead of slowly in their abdomen, a body pattern which triggers a defense reaction and inhibits regeneration. If instead they breathe slowly and uncurl they report a significant decrease in discomfort (Gibney & Peper, 2003).
Paradoxically, this protective stance of bracing the abdomen and breathing shallowly in the chest increases breathing rate and reduces heart rate variability. It reduces and inhibits blood and lymph flow through the abdomen as the defensive posture evokes the physiology of fight/flight/freeze. The reduction in venous blood and lymph flow occurs because the ongoing compression and expansion in the abdomen is inhibited by the thoracic breathing and, moreover, the inhibition of diaphragmatic breathing. It also inhibits peristalsis and digestion. No wonder so many of the people with IBS report that they are reactive to some foods. If the GI track has reduced blood flow and reduced peristalsis, it may be less able to digest foods which would affect the bacteria in the small intestine and colon. We wonder if a risk factor that contributes to SIBO is chronic lack of abdominal movement and bracing.
Slow diaphragmatic abdominal breathing to establish health
“Digestion and regeneration occurs when the person feels safe.”
Effortless, slow diaphragmatic breathing occurs when the diaphragm descends and pushes the abdominal content downward during inhalation, which causes the abdomen to become bigger. As the abdomen expands, the pelvic floor relaxes and descends. During exhalation, the pelvic floor muscles tighten slightly, lifting the pelvic floor and the transverse and oblique abdominal muscles contract and push the abdominal content upward against the diaphragm, allowing the diaphragm to relax and go upward, pushing the air out. The following video, 3D view of the diaphragm, from www.3D-Yoga.com by illustrates the movement of the diaphragm.
This expansion and constriction of the abdomen occurs most easily if the person is extended, whether sitting or standing erect or lying down, and the waist is not constricted. If the arches forward in a protected pattern and the spine is flexed in a c shape, it would compress the abdomen; instead, the body is long and the abdomen can move and expand during inhalation as the diaphragm descends (see figure 1). If the person holds their abdomen tight or it is constricted by clothing or a belt, it cannot expand during inhalation. Abdominal breathing occurs more easily when the person feels safe and expanded versus unsafe or fearful and collapsed or constricted.
Figure 1. Erect versus collapsed posture note that there is less space for the abdomen to expand in the protective collapsed position. Reproduced by permission from: Clinical Somatics (http://www.clinicalsomatics.ie/
When a person breathes slower and lower it encourages blood and lymph flow through the abdomen. As the person continues to practice slower, lower breathing, it reduces the arousal and vigilance. This is the opposite state of the flight, fight, freeze response so that blood flow is increased in abdomen, and peristalsis re-occurs. When the person practices slow exhalation and breathing and they slightly tighten the oblique and transverse abdominal muscles as well as the pelvic floor and allow these muscles to relax during inhalation. When they breathe in this pattern effortless they, they often will experience an increase in abdominal warmth and an initiation of abdominal sounds (stomach rumble or borborygmus) which indicates that peristalsis has begun to move food through the intestines (Peper et al., 2016). For a detailed description see https://peperperspective.com/2016/04/26/allow-natural-breathing-with-abdominal-muscle-biofeedback-1-2/
What can you do to reduce IBS
There are many factors that cause and effect IBS, some of which we have control over and some which are our out of our control, such as genetics. The purpose of proposed suggestions is to focus on those things over which you have control and reduce risk factors that negatively affect the gastrointestinal track. Generally, begin by integrating self-healing strategies that promote health which have no negative side effects before agreeing to do more aggressive pharmaceutical or even surgical interventions which could have negative side effects. Along the way, work collaboratively with your health care provider. Experiment with the following:
- Avoid food and drinks that may irritate the gastrointestinal tract. These include coffee, hot spices, dairy products, wheat and many others. If you are not sure whether you are reacting to a food or drink, keep a detailed log of what you eat and drink and how you feel. Do self-experimentation by eating or drinking the specific food by itself as the first food in the morning. Then observe how you feel in the next two hours. If possible, eat only organic foods that have not been contaminated by herbicides and pesticides (see: https://peperperspective.com/2015/01/11/are-herbicides-a-cause-for-allergies-immune-incompetence-and-adhd/).
- Identify and resolve stressors, conflicts and problems that negatively affect you and drain your energy. Keep a log to identify situations that drain or increase your subjective energy. Then do problem solving to reduce those situations that drain your energy and increase those situations that increase your energy. For a detailed description of the practice see https://peperperspective.com/2012/12/09/increase-energy-gains-decrease-energy-drains/
Often the most challenging situations that we cannot stomach are those where we feel defeated, helpless, hopeless and powerless or situations where we feel threatened– we do not feel safe. Reach out to other both friends and social services to explore how these situations can be resolved. In some cases, there is nothing that can be done except to accept what is and go on.
- Feel safe. As long as we feel unsafe, we have to be vigilant and are stressed which affects the GI track. Explore the following:
- What does safety mean for you?
- What causes you to feel unsafe from the past or the present?
- What do you need to feel safe?
- Who can offer support that you feel safe?
Reflect on these questions and then explore and implement ways by which you can create feeling more safe.
- Take breaks to regenerate. During the day, at work and at home, monitor yourself. Are you pushing yourself to complete tasks. In a 24/7 world with many ongoing responsibilities, we are unknowingly vigilant and do not allow ourselves to rest and relax to regenerate. Do not wait till you feel tired or exhausted. Stop earlier and take a short break. The break can be a short walk, a cup of tea or soup, or looking outside at a tree. During this break, think about positive events that have happened or people who love you and for whom you feel love. When you smile and think of someone who loves you, such as a grandparent, you may relax and for that moment as you feel safe which allows regeneration to begin.
- Observe how you inhale. Take a deep breath. If you feel you are moving upward and becoming a little bit taller, your breathing is wrong. Put one hand on your lower abdomen and the other on your chest and take a deep breath. If you observe your chest lifted upward and stomach did not expand, your breathing is wrong. You are not breathing diaphragmatically. Watch the following video, The correct way to breathe in, on how to observe your breathing and how to breathe diaphragmatically.
- Learn diaphragmatic breathing. Take time to practice diaphragmatic breathing. Practice while lying down and sitting or standing. Let the breathing rate slow down to about six breaths per minute. Exhale to the count of four and then let it trail off for two more counts, and inhale to the count of three and let it trail for another count. Practice this sitting and lying down (for more details on breathing see: https://peperperspective.com/2014/09/11/a-breath-of-fresh-air-improve-health-with-breathing/.
- Sitting position. Exhale by feeling your abdomen coming inward slightly for the count of four and trailing off for the count of two, then allow the lower ribs to widen, abdomen expand–the whole a trunk expands–as you inhale while the shoulders stay relaxed for a count of three. Allow it to trail off for one more count before you again begin to exhale. Be gentle, do not rush or force yourself. Practice this slower breathing for five minutes. Focus more on the exhalation and allowing the air to just flow in. Give yourself time during the transition between inhalation and exhalation.
- Lying down position. While lying on your back, place a two to five-pound weight such as a bag of rice on your stomach as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Lying down and practicing breathing with two to five-pound weight on stomach (reproduced by permission from Gorter and Peper, 2011.
As you inhale push the weight upward and also feel your lower ribs widen. Then allow exhalation to occur by the weight pushing the abdominal content down which pushes the diaphragm upward. This causing the breath to flow out. As you exhale, imagine the air flowing out through your legs as if there were straws inside your legs. When your attention wanders, smile and bring it back to imagining the air flowing down your legs during exhalation. Practice this for twenty minutes. Many people report that during the practice the gurgling in their abdomen occurs which is a sign that peristalsis and healing is returning.
- Observe and change your breathing during the day. Observe your breathing pattern during the day. Each time you hold your breath, gasp or breathe in your chest, interrupt the pattern and substitute slow diaphragmatic breathing for the next five breaths. Do this the whole day long. Many people observe that when they think of stressor or are worried, they hold their breath or shallow breathe in the chest. If this occurs, acknowledge the worry and focus on changing your breathing. This does not mean that you dismiss the concern, instead for this moment you focus on breathing and then explore ways to solve the problem.
If you observed that under specific circumstance you held your breath or breathed shallowly in your chest, then whenever you anticipate that the same event will occur again, begin to breathe diaphragmatically. To do this consistently is very challenging and most people report that initially they only seem to breathe incorrectly. It takes practice, practice and practice—mindful practice– to change. Yet those who continue to practice often report a decrease in symptoms and feel more energy and improved quality of life.
Changing habitual health behaviors such as diet and breathing can be remarkably challenging; however, it is possible. Give yourself enough time, and practice it many times until it becomes automatic. It is no different from learning to play a musical instrument or mastering a sport. Initially, it feels impossible, and with lot of practice it becomes more and more automatic. We continue to be impressed that healing is possible. Among our students at San Francisco State University, who practice their self-healing skills for five weeks, approximately 80% report a significant improvement in their health (Peper et al., 2014).
* This blog was adapted and expanded from: Peper, E., Mason, L., & Huey, C. (2017). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback. 45(4), 83-87. DOI: 10.5298/1081-5937-45.4.04 https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/a-healing-ibs-published.pdf
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Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting Cancer-A NonToxic Approach to Treatment. Berkeley: North Atlantic.
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.
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“After two and a half years of trying, ups and downs, and a long period of thinking it will never happen, it did happen. I followed your advice by only applying pressure with the cones while inhaling and at the same time relaxing the pelvic floor. We succeeded! we had “real” sex in the first time.”
Millions of women experience involuntary contraction of the musculature of the outer third of the vagina (vaginismus) interfering with intercourse, causing distress and interpersonal difficulty (ter Kuile et, 2010) or pain during intercourse (dyspareunia). It is estimated that 1 to 6% of women have vaginismus (Lewis et al, 2004) and 6.5% to 45.0% in older women and from 14% to 34% in younger women experience dyspareunia (Van Lankveld et al, 2010). The most common treatment for vaginismus is sequential dilation of the vaginal opening with progressively larger cones, psychotherapy and medications to reduce the pain and anxiety. At times clients and health care professionals may be unaware of the biological processes that influence the muscle contraction and relaxation of the pelvic floor. Success is more likely if the client works in harmony with the biological processes while practicing self-healing and treatment protocols. These biological processes, described at the end of the blog significantly affects the opening of vestibule and vagina are: 1) feeling safe, 2) inhale during insertion to relax the pelvic floor, 3) stretch very, very slowly to avoid triggering the stretch reflex, and 4) being sexual aroused.
Successful case report: There is hope to resolve pain and vaginismus
Yesterday my husband and I had sex in the first time, after two and a half years of “trying”. Why did it take so long? Well, the doctor said “vaginismus”, the psychologist said “fear”, the physiotherapist said “constricted muscles”, and friends said “just relax, drink some wine and it will happen”.
Sex was always a weird, scary, complicated – and above all, painful – world to me. It may have started in high school: like many other teens, I thought a lot about sex and masturbated almost every night. Masturbation was a good feeling followed by tons of bad feelings – guilt, shame, and feeling disgusting. One of the ideas I had to accept, later in my progress, is that ‘feeling good is a good thing’. It is normal, permitted and even important and healthy.
My first experience, at age 20, was short, very painful, and without any love or even affection. He was…. well, not for me. And I was…. well, naive and with very little knowledge about my body. The experiences that came after that, with other guys, were frustrating. Neither of them knew how to handle the pain that sex caused me, and I didn’t know what to do.
The first gynecologist said that everything is fine and I just need to relax. No need to say I left her clinic very angry and in pain. The second gynecologist was the first one to give it a name: “vaginismus”. He said that there are some solutions to the problem: anesthetic ointment, physiotherapy (“which is rarely helps”, according to his optimistic view..), and if these won’t work “we will start thinking of surgery, which is very painful and you don’t want to go there”. Oh, I certainly didn’t want to go there.
After talking to a friend whose sister had the same problem, I started seeing a great physiotherapist who was an expert in these problems. She used a vaginal biofeedback sensor, that measured muscles’ tonus inside the vagina. My homework were 30 constrictions every day, plus working with “dilators” – plastic cones comes in 6 sizes, starting from a size of a small finger, to a size of a penis.
At this point I was already in a relationship with my husband, who was understanding, calm and most important – very patient. To be honest, we both never thought it would take so long. Practicing was annoying and painful, and I found myself thinking a lot “is it worth it?”. After a while, I felt that the physical practice is not enough, and I need a “psychological breakthrough”. So I stopped practicing and started seeing a psychologist, for about a half a year. We processed my past experiences, examined the thoughts and beliefs I had about sex, and that way we released some of the tension that was shrinking my body.
The next step was to continue practicing with the dilators, but honestly – I had no motivation. My husband and I had great sex without the actual penetration, and I didn’t want the painful practice again. Fortunately, I participated in a short course given by Professor Erik Peper, about biofeedback therapy. In his lecture he described a young woman, who suffered from vulvodynia, a problem that is a bit similar to vaginismus (Peper et al, 2015; See: https://peperperspective.com/2015/09/25/resolving-pelvic-floor-pain-a-case-report/). She learned how to relax her body and deal with the pain, and finally she had sex – and even enjoyed it! I was inspired.
Erik Peper gave me a very important advice: breathing in. Apparently, we can relax the muscles and open the vagina better while inhaling, instead of exhaling – as I tried before. During exhalation the pelvic floor tightens and goes upward while during inhalation the pelvic floor descends and relaxes especially when sitting up (Peper et al, 2016). He advised me to give myself a few minutes with the dilator, and in every inhale – imagine the area opening and insert the dilator a few millimeters. I started practicing again, but in a sitting position, which I found more comfortable and less painful. I advanced to the biggest dilator within a few weeks, and had a just little pain – sometimes without any pain at all. The most important thing I understood was not to be afraid of the pain. The fear is what made me even more tensed, and tension brings pain. Then, my husband and I started practicing with “the real thing”, very slowly and gently, trying to find the best position and angle for us. Finally, we did it. And it was a great feeling.
The biological factors that affect the relaxation/contraction of the pelvic floor and vaginal opening are:
Feeling safe and hopeful. When threatened, scared, anticipate pain, and worry, our body triggers a defense reaction. In this flexor response, labeled by Thomas Hanna as the Red Light Reflex, the body curls up in defense to protect itself which includes the shoulders to round, the chest to be depressed, the legs pressing together, the pelvic floor to tighten and the head to jut forward (Hanna, 2004). This is the natural response of fear, anxiety, prolonged stress or negative depressive thinking.
Before beginning to work on vaginismus, feel safe. This means accepting what is, accepting that it is not your fault, and that there are no demands for performance. It also means not anticipating that it will be again painful because with each anticipation the pelvic floor tends to tightens. Read the chapter on vaginismus in Dr. Lonnie Barbach’s book, For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy (Barbach, 1983).
Inhale during insertion to relax the pelvic floor and vaginal opening. This instruction is seldom taught because in most instances, we have been taught to exhale while relaxing. Exhaling while relaxing is true for most muscles; however, it is different for the pelvic floor. When inhalation occurs, the pelvic floor descends and relaxes. During exhalation the pelvic floor tightens and ascends to support breathing and push the diaphragm upward to exhale the air. Be sure to allow the abdomen to expand during inhalation without lifting the chest and allow the abdomen to constrict during exhalation as if inhalation fills the balloon in the abdomen and exhalation deflates the balloon (for detailed instructions see Peper et al, 2016). Do not inhale by lifting and expanding your chest which often occurs during gasping and and fear. It tends to tighten and lift the pelvic floor.
Experience the connection between diaphragmatic breathing and pelvic floor movement in the following practice.
While sitting upright make a hissing noise as the air escapes with pressure between your lips. As you are exhaling feel, your abdomen and your anus tightening. During the inhalation let your abdomen expand and feel how your anus descends and pelvic floor relaxes. With practice this will become easier.
Stretch very, very slowly to avoid triggering the stretch reflex. When a muscle is rapidly stretched, it triggers an automatic stretch reflex which causes the muscle to contract. This innate response occurs to avoid damaging the muscle by over stretching. The stretch reflex is also triggered by pain and puts a brake on the stretching. Always use a lubricant when practicing by yourself or with a partner. Practice inserting larger and larger diameter dilaters into the vagina. Start with a very small diameter and progress to a larger diameter. These can be different diameter cones, your finger, or other objects. Remember to inhale and feel the pelvic floor descending as you insert the probe or finger. If you feel discomfort/pain, stop pushing, keep breathing, relax your shoulders, relax your hips, legs, and toes and do not push inward and upward again until the discomfort has faded out.
Feel sexually aroused by allowing enough foreplay. When sexually aroused the tissue is more lubricated and may stretch easier. Continue to use a good lubricant.
Putting it all together.
When you feel safe, practice slow diaphragmatic breathing and be aware of the pelvic floor relaxing and descending during inhalation and contracting and going up during exhalation. When practicing stretching the opening with cones or your finger, go very, very slow. Only apply pressure of insertion during the mid-phase of inhalation, then wait during exhalation and then again insert slight more during the next inhalation. When you experience pain, relax your shoulders, keep breathing for four or five breaths till the pain subsides, then push very little during the next inhalation. Go much slower and with more tenderness.
Be patient. Explain to your partner that your body and mind need time to adjust to new feelings. However, don’t stop having sex – you can have great sex without penetration. Practice both alone and with your partner; together find the best angle and rate. Use different lubricants to check out what is best for you. Any little progress is getting you closer to having an enjoyable sex. I recommend watching this TED video of Emily Nagoski explaining the “dual control model” and practicing as she suggests: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HILY0wWBlBM
Finally, practice the exercises developed by Dr. Lonnie Barbach, who as one of the first co-directors of clinical training at the University of California San Francisco, Human Sexuality Program, created the women’s pre-orgasmic group treatment program. They are superbly described in her two books, For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy, and For yourself: The fulfillment of female sexuality, and are a must read for anyone desiring to increase sexual fulfillment and joy (Barbach, 2000; 1983).
Barbach, L. (1983). For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy. New York: Anchor
Barbach, L. (2000). For yourself: The fulfillment of female sexuality. New York: Berkley.
BarLewis, R. W., Fugl‐Meyer, K. S., Bosch, R., Fugl‐Meyer, A. R., Laumann, E. O., Lizza, E., & Martin‐Morales, A. (2004). Epidemiology/risk factors of sexual dysfunction. The journal of sexual medicine, 1(1), 35-39. http://www.jsm.jsexmed.org/article/S1743-6095(15)30062-X/fulltext
Hanna, T. (2004). Somatics: Reawakening the mind’s control of movement, flexibility, and health. Boston: Da Capo Press.
Martinez Aranda, P. & Peper, E. (2015). The healing of vulvodynia from a client’s perspective. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-healing-of-vulvodynia-from-the-client-perspective-2015-06-15.pdf
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://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/1-abdominal-semg-feedback-published.pdf
Peper, E., Martinez Aranda, P., & Moss, E. (2015). Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report. Biofeedback. 43(2), 103-109. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-vulvodynia-treated-with-biofeedback-published.pdf
Ter Kuile, M. M., Both, S., & van Lankveld, J. J. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for sexual dysfunctions in women. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3), 595-610. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45090259_Cognitive_Behavioral_Therapy_for_Sexual_Dysfunctions_in_Women
Van Lankveld, J. J., Granot, M., Weijmar Schultz, W., Binik, Y. M., Wesselmann, U., Pukall, C. F., . Achtrari, C. (2010). Women’s sexual pain disorders. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(1pt2), 615-631. http://www.jsm.jsexmed.org/article/S1743-6095(15)32867-8/fulltext
*We thank Dr. Lonnie Barbach for her helpful feedback and support. Written collaboratively with Tal Cohen, biofeedback therapist (Israel) and Erik Peper.