This post has been adapted from Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Hamiel, D. (2019). Transforming thoughts with postural awareness to increase therapeutic and teaching efficacy. NeuroRegulation, 6(3), 153-169. doi:10.15540/nr.6.3.1533-1
When locked into a position, options appear less available. By unlocking our body, we allow our brain to unlock and become open to new options.
Changing positions may dissolve the rigidity associated with a fixed position. When we step away from the conflict, take a walk, look up at the treetops, roof lines and clouds, or do something different, we loosen up and new ideas may occur. We may then be able see the conflict from a different point of view that allows resolution.
When stressed, anxious or depressed, it is challenging to change. The negative feelings, thoughts and worries continue to undermine the practice of reframing the experience more positively. Our recent study found that a simple technique, that integrates posture with breathing and reframing, rapidly reduces anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019).
Thoughts and emotions affect posture and posture affects thoughts and emotions. When stressed or worried (e.g., school performance, job security, family conflict, undefined symptoms, or financial insecurity), our bodies respond to the negative thoughts and emotions by slightly collapsing and shifting into a protective position. When we collapse/slouch, we are much more at risk to:
- Feel helpless (Riskind & Gotay, 1982).
- Feel powerless (Westfeld & Beresford, 1982; Cuddy, 2012).
- Recall and being more captured by negative memories (Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017; Tsai, Peper, & Lin, 2016),
- Experience cognitive difficulty (Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018).
When we are upright and look up, we are more likely to:
- Have more energy (Peper & Lin, 2012).
- Feel stronger (Peper, Booiman, Lin, & Harvey, 2016).
- Find it easier to do cognitive activity (Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018).
- Feel more confident and empowered (Cuddy, 2012).
- Recall more positive autobiographical memories (Michalak, Mischnat,& Teismann, 2014).
Experience how posture affects memory and the feelings (adapted from Alan Alda, 2018)
Stand up and do the following:
- Think of a memory/event when you felt defeated, hurt or powerless and put your body in the posture that you associate with this feeling. Make it as real as possible . Stay with the feeling and associated body posture for 30 seconds. Let go of the memory and posture. Observe what you experienced.
- Think of a memory/event when you felt empowered, positive and happy put your body in the posture that you associate with those feelings. Make it as real as possible. Stay with the feeling and associated body posture for 30 seconds. Let go of the memory and posture. Observe what you experienced.
- Adapt the defeated posture and now recall the positive empowering memory while staying in the defeated posture. Observe what you experience.
- Adapt the empowering posture and now recall the defeated hopeless memory while staying in the empowered posture. Observe what you experience.
Almost all people report that when they adapt the body posture congruent with the emotion that it was much easier to access the memory and feel the emotion. On the other hand when they adapt the body posture that was the opposite to the emotions, then it was almost impossible to experience the emotions. For many people, when they adapted the empowering posture, they could not access the defeated hopeless memory. If they did access that memory, they were more likely be an observer and not be involved or emotionally captured by the negative memory.
Comparison of Posture with breathing and reframing to Reframing
The study investigated whether changing internal dialogue (reframing) or combining posture change and breathing with changing internal dialogue would reduce stress and negative self-talk more effectively.
The participants were 145 college students (90 women and 55 men) average age 25.0 who participated as part of a curricular practice in four different classes.
After the students completed an anonymous informational questionnaire (history of depression, anxiety, blanking out on exams, worrying, slouching), the classes were divided into two groups. They were then asked to do the following:
- Think of a stressful conflict or problem and make it as real as possible for one minute. Then let go of the stressful memory and do one of the two following practices.
- Practice A: Reframe the experience positively for 20 seconds.
- Practice B: Sit upright, look up, take a breath and reframe the experience positively for 20 seconds.
- After doing practice A or practice B, rate the extent to which your negative thoughts and anxiety/tension were reduced, from 0 (not at all) to 10 (totally).
- Now repeat this exercise except switch and do the other practice. (Namely, if you did A now you do B; if you did B now you do A).
Overwhelmingly students reported that sitting erect, breathing and reframing positively was much more effective than only reframing as shown in Figure 1 and 2.Figure 1. Percentage of students rating posture, breath and reframing practice (PBRP) as more effective than reframing practice (RP) in reducing negative thoughts, anxiety and stress. Figure 2. Self-rating of reduction of negative thoughts and anxiety/tension
Stop reading. Do the practice yourself. It is only through experience that you know whether posture with breathing and reframing is a more beneficial than simply reframing the language.
Implications for education, counseling, psychotherapy.
Our findings have implications for education, counseling and psychotherapy because students and clients usually sit in a slouched position in classrooms and therapeutic settings. By shifting the body position to an erect upright position, taking a breath and then reframing, people are much more successful in reducing their negative thoughts and anxiety/stress. They report feeling much more optimistic and better able to cope with felt stress as shown by representative comments in table 1.
|Reframing||Posture, breath and reframing|
|After changing my internal language, I still strongly felt the same thoughts.||I instantly felt better about my situation after adjusting my posture.|
|I felt a slight boost in positivity and optimism. The negative feelings (anxiety) from the negative thoughts also diminished slightly.||The effects were much stronger and it was not isolated mentally. I felt more relief in my body as well.|
|Even after changing my language, I still felt more anxious.||Before changing my posture and breathing, I felt tense and worried. After I felt more relaxed.|
|I began to lift my mood up; however, it didn’t really improve my mood. I still felt a bit bad afterwards and the thoughts still stayed.||I began to look from the floor and up towards the board. I felt more open, understanding and loving. I did not allow myself to get let down.|
|During the practice, it helped calm me down a bit, but it wasn’t enough to make me feel satisfied or content, it felt temporary.||My body felt relaxed overall, which then made me feel a lot better about the situation.|
|Difficult time changing language.||My posture and breathing helped, making it easier to change my language.|
|I felt anger and stayed in my position. My body stayed tensed and I kept thinking about the situation.||I felt anger but once I sat up straight and thought about breathing, my body felt relaxed.|
|Felt like a tug of war with my thoughts. I was able to think more positively but it took a lot more brain power to do so.||Relaxed, extended spine, clarity, blank state of mind.|
Table 1. Some representative comments of practicing reframing or posture, breath and reframing.
The results of our study in the classroom setting are not surprising. Many us know to take three breaths before answering questions, pause and reflect before responding, take time to cool down before replying in anger, or wait till the next day before you hit return on your impulsive email response.
Currently, counseling, psychotherapy, psychiatry and education tend not to incorporate body posture as a potential therapeutic or educational intervention for teaching participants to control their mood or reduce feelings of powerlessness. Instead, clients and students often sit slightly collapsed in a chair during therapy or in class. On the other hand, if individuals were encouraged to adopt an upright posture especially in the face of stressful circumstances it would help them maintain their self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and use fewer sadness words as compared to the individual in a slumped and seated posture (Nair, Sagar, Sollers, Consedine, & Broadbent, 2015).
THE VALUE OF SELF-EXPERIENCE
What makes this study valuable is that participants compare for themselves the effects of the two different interventions techniques to reduce anxiety, stress and negative thoughts. Thus, the participants have an opportunity to discover which strategy is more effective instead of being told what to do. The demonstration is even more impressive when done in groups because nearly all participants will report that changing posture with breathing and reframing is more beneficial.
This simple and quick technique can be integrated in counseling and psychotherapy by teaching clients this behavioral technique to reduce stress. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), sitting upright can help the individual replace a thought with a more reasonable one. In third wave CBT, it can help bypass the negative content of the original language and create a metacognitive change, such as, “I will not let this thought control me.”
It can also help in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) since changing one’s body posture may facilitate the process of “acceptance” (Hayes, Pistorello, & Levin, 2012). Adopting an upright sitting position and taking a breath is like saying “I am here, I am present, I am not escaping or avoiding.” This change in body position represents movement from inside to outside, movement from accepting the unpleasant emotion related to the negative thoughts toward a “commitment” to moving ahead, contrary to the automatic tendency to follow the negative thought. The positive reframing during body position or posture change is not an attempt to color reality in pretty colors, but rather a change of awareness, perspective, and focus that helps the individual identify and see some new options for moving ahead toward commitment according to one’s values. This intentional change in direction is central in ACT and also in positive psychology (Stichter, 2018).
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
We suggest that therapists, educators, clients and students get up out of their chairs and incorporate body movements when they feels overwhelmed and stuck. Finally, this study points out that mind and body are affected by each other. It provides another example of the psychophysiological principle enunciated by Elmer Green (1999, p 368):
“Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious; and conversely, every change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state.”
The findings of this study echo the ancient spiritual wisdom that is is central to the teaching of the Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. He recommends that his students recite the following at any time:
Breathing in I calm my body,
Breathing out I smile,
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know it is a wonderful moment.
Adapted from: Peper, E., Pollack, W., Harvey, R., Yoshino, A., Daubenmier, J. & Anziani, M. (2019). Which quiets the mind more quickly and increases HRV: Toning or mindfulness? NeuroRegulation, 6(3), 128-133.
Disruptive thoughts, ruminations and worrying are common experiences especially when stressed. Numerous clinical strategies such as cognitive behavioral therapy attempt to teach clients to reduce negative ruminations (Kopelman-Rubin, Omer, & Dar, 2017). Over the last ten years, many people and therapists practice meditative techniques to let go and not be captured by negative ruminations, thoughts, and emotions. However, many people continue to struggle with distracting and wandering thoughts.
Just think back when you’re upset, hurt, angry or frustrated. Attempting just to observe without judgment can be very, very challenging as the mind keeps rehearsing and focusing on what happened. Telling yourself to stop being upset often doesn’t work because your mind is focused on how upset you are. If you can focus on something else or perform physical activity, the thoughts and feelings often subside.
Over the last fifteen years, mindfulness meditation has been integrated and adapted for use in behavioral medicine and psychology (Peper, Harvey, & Lin, 2019). It has also been implemented during bio- and neurofeedback training (Khazan, 2013; Khazan, 2019). Part of the mindfulness instruction is to recognize the thoughts without judging or becoming experientially “fused” with them. A process referred to as “meta-awareness” (Dahl, Lutz, & Davidson, 2015). Mindfulness training combined with bio- and neurofeedback training can improve a wide range of psychological and physical health conditions associated with symptoms of stress, such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and addiction (Creswell, 2015, Khazan, 2019).
Mindfulness is an effective technique; however, it may not be more effective than other self-regulations strategies (Peper et al, 2019). Letting go of worrying thoughts and rumination is even more challenging when one is upset, angry, or captured by stressful life circumstances. Is it possible that other strategies beside mindfulness may more rapidly reduce wandering and intrusive thoughts? In 2015, researchers van der Zwan, de Vente, Huiznik, Bogels, & de Bruin found that physical activity, mindfulness meditation and heart rate variability biofeedback were equally effective in reducing stress and its related symptoms when practiced for five weeks.
Our research explored whether other techniques from the ancient wisdom traditions could provide participants tools to reduce rumination and worry. We investigated the physiological effects and subject experiences of mindfulness and toning. Toning is vocalizing long and sustained sounds as a form of mediation. (Watch the video the toning demonstration by sound healer and musician, Madhu Anziani at the end of the blog.)
COMPARING TONING AND MINDFULNESS
The participants were 91 undergraduate college students (35 males, 51 females and 5 unspecified; average age, 22.4 years, (SD = 3.5 years).
After sitting comfortably in class, each student practiced either mindfulness or toning for three minutes each. After each practice, the students rated the extent of mind wandering, occurrence of intrusive thoughts and sensations of vibration on a scale from 0 (not all) to 10 (all the time). They also rated pre and post changes in peacefulness, relaxation, stress, warmth, anxiety and depression. After completing the assessment, they practice the other practice and after three minutes repeated the assessment.
The physiological changes that may occur during mindfulness practice and toning practice was recorded in a separate study with 11 undergraduate students (4 males, 7 females; average age 21.4 years. Heart rate and respiration were monitored with ProComp Infiniti™ system (Thought Technology, Ltd., Montreal, Canada). Respiration was monitored from the abdomen and upper thorax with strain gauges and heartrate was monitored with a blood volume pulse sensor placed on the thumb.
After the sensors were attached, the participants faced away from the screen so they did not receive feedback. They then followed the same procedure as described earlier, with three minutes of mindfulness, or toning practice, counterbalanced. After each condition, they completed a subjective assessment form rating experiences as described above.
RESULTS: SUBJECTIVE FINDINGS
Toning was much more successful in reducing mind wandering and intrusive thoughts than mindfulness. Toning also significantly increased awareness of body vibration as compared to mindfulness as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Differences between mindfulness and toning practice.
There was no significant difference between toning and mindfulness in the increased self-report of peacefulness, warmth, relaxation, and decreased self-report of anxiety and depression as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. No significant difference between toning and mindfulness practice in relaxation or stress reports.
RESULTS: PHYSIOLOGICAL FINDINGS
Respiration rate was significantly lower during toning (4.6 br/min) as compared to mindfulness practice (11.6 br/min); heart rate standard deviation (SDNN) was much higher during toning condition (11.6) (SDNN 103.7 ms) than mindfulness (6.4) (SDNN 61.9 ms). Two representative physiological recording are shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Representative recordings of breathing and heart rate during mindfulness and toning practice. During toning the respiration rate (chest and abdomen) was much slower than during mindfulness and baseline conditions. Also, during toning heart rate variability was much larger than during mindfulness or baseline conditions.
Toning practice is a useful strategy to reduce mind wandering as well as inhibit intrusive thoughts and increase heart rate variability (HRV). Most likely toning uses the same neurological pathways as self-talk and thus inhibits the negative and hopeless thoughts. Toning is a useful meditation alternative because it instructs people to make a sound that vibrates in their body and thus they attend to the sound and not to their thoughts.
Physiologically, toning immediately changed the respiration rate to less than 6 breaths per minute and increases heart rate variability. This increase in heart rate variability occurs without awareness or striving. We recommend that toning is integrated as a strategy to complement bio-neurofeedback protocols. It may be a useful approach to enhance biofeedback-assisted HRV training since toning increases HRV without trying and it may be used as an alternative to mindfulness, or used in tandem for maximum effectiveness.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
1) When people report feeling worried and anxious and have difficulty interrupting ruminations that they first practice toning before beginning mindfulness meditation or bio-neurofeedback training.
2) When training participants to increase heart rate variability, toning could be a powerful technique to increase HRV without striving
TONING DEMONSTRATION AND INSTRUCTION BY SOUND HEALER MADHU ANZIANI
For the published article see: Peper, E., Pollack, W., Harvey, R., Yoshino, A., Daubenmier, J. & Anziani, M. (2019). Which quiets the mind more quickly and increases HRV: Toning or mindfulness? NeuroRegulation, 6(3), 128-133.
Kopelman-Rubin, D., Omer, H., & Dar, R. (2017). Brief therapy for excessive worry: Treatment model, feasibility, and acceptability of a new treatment. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 29(3), 291-306.
van der Zwan, J. E., de Vente, W., Huizink, A. C., Bogels, S. M., & de Bruin, E. I. (2015). Physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback for stress reduction: A randomized controlled trial. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 40(4), 257-268. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-015-9293-x
Erik Peper and Derek DoyleSource: https://devinepartners.com/2015/12/03/positive-news-sheds-light-this-winter/
“Fear stops action; hope initiate action.”
Observe how you feel after you read the following two news reports:
Report 1. The graduating class at Atlanta’s historically black Morehouse College got the surprise of a lifetime on Sunday when commencement speaker and billionaire Robert F. Smith announced that he wasn’t just there to give the nearly 400 graduating seniors a nice motivational speech — he was also going to pay off their student debt.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith, the founder of the investment firm Vista Equity and the richest black person in the United States, told the newest graduates of the prestigious all-male college. “This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.” (Lockhart, 2019).
News report 2: Gerry Dean Zaragoza, 26, is accused of fatally shooting his father and brother at a San Fernando Valley apartment before killing his ex-girlfriend at a gas station in North Hollywood, Los Angeles authorities said. He then is thought to have killed someone on a bus as police were searching for him during the 12-hour manhunt, Los Angeles police said. (Andrew Blankstein and Doha Madani (2019).
Which story made you feel more fearful and defensive; which story made you feel more positive and likely to help others?
The effect of incessant news
With the headlines screaming about killing, the endless repeating and commenting on tweeting lies that evoke hatred, the creation of concentration camps and separating children from their immigrant mothers, or Representatives and Senators focusing on winning the next election instead of focusing on the common good, we become fearful, discouraged and hopeless about the future. Surrounded by negative news we become apathetic, freeze in place, and close down to protect against loss.
Having traveled in the last few years to Japan, India, the Netherlands, Spain, Poland, Italy, and Canada, we observed that the USA is becoming a failed state. The failing infrastructure of bridges and roads, the student debt that locks students into years of servitude, and the millions of people bankrupted by medical bills are only a few of the symptoms of our failing state and lack of positive vision. The more we allow ourselves to be bombarded by negative visual and auditory messages, the more we feel hopeless and powerless. We do not want to react out of hatred and disgust. We want to focus on possibilities and be motivated by positive role models that will encourage positive action. Where is the inspirational vision for the future and the “Restoration Story” of how to get there? (Monbiot, 2019). We need a common mission for all to contribute to in our own unique and special way.
The images, words and thoughts that we allow to enter our brain become the hypnotic template for tomorrow’s action. There is a difference in saying, “I do not want hatred, fear and degrading commentary” versus “I want to learn from the inspirational work, aspirations and visions of nation builders and participate in this process.”
If you say to yourself, “I do not want to eat a piece of pie,” then that thought evokes the image of piece of pie, which you may reject by saying “No.” This means that you are rehearsing eating the sweets and thus strengthening the desire. If on the other hand you say to yourself, ‘I choose to eat more fruits and vegetables,” you are strengthening that desire. The thoughts help you identify the presence of fruits and vegetables more easily. Just as when you plan a vacation to Hawaii. All of a sudden there seems to be adds about Hawaii everywhere.
What we remember the next day depends upon what we focused upon earlier. What we focus our attention and emotions on before going to sleep is what is stored in permanent memory and more likely to be remembered and acted upon the next day. Be careful what to look at and watch before going to sleep. It also impacts our physical and mental health. Children whose parents were emotionally upset and continue to watch the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings many times during the 9/11 terrorist attack experienced more stress symptom (including difficulty concentrating, difficulty falling asleep, losing temper/irritability, and nightmares) and 47% were worried about their own safety or the safety of loved ones (Hooker and Friedman, 2005).
Ask yourself, what images, speech and thoughts you allow to enter your brain? In most cases, the news focuses upon destructive acts that evoke fear and implicitly reduce actual action. Similarly, we can watch violent and toxic program on different streaming media such as Netflix, YouTube or Amazon Prime. As a result, we see the world much more dangerous than it is. Thus, we hover over children because we now think that they would be abducted by strangers (Amber Alert). This increases the public’s moral panic yet it is not clear if there has been an actual increase in stranger child abduction in the last fifty years (Zgoba, 2006).
People who watch the news before going to sleep perceive their neighborhood as significantly more dangerously as compared to those who do not watch the news. Because they believe their neighborhood is more dangerous, they avoid going out and by not going out make the neighborhood less communal and friendly. The information supports our negativity bias which focuses our attention on things that are dangerous or threatening (Soroka & McAdams, 2015)..
We have a choice to focus on what we would like instead of allowing to be bombarded by negative toxic messages and images. This does not mean we stick our heads in the sand and are unaware, it means that we choose carefully how to balance the messages we receive. Instead of watching and listening to repeated negative news, listen or read (to) the news once during the day and then fill the day with positive news that evokes hope, good deeds and better possibilities for our communities.
Consider an experiment for a day or so..
Try searching and discovering some good news to share with family and friends. Watch their reaction and then extend the experiment for a few days seeking and sharing positive news.
Watch and listen to positive media such as:
- GoodNews Network: The website, with its archive of 21,000 positive news stories from around the globe, confirms what people already know—that good news itself is not in short supply; the broadcasting of it is. https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org
- TED Ideas worth spreading. TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world. https://www.ted.com/#/
After a few days or a week, ask how do you feel?
- Are you more optimistic?
- Do you feel safer and more relaxed?
- Is sleep more restorative?
If you are like many others, you would feel slightly more hopeful, optimistic and positive.
What we allow to enter our brain becomes the template for the choices we make.
“I am doing very well, and I am very healthy. The vulvodynia symptoms have never come back. Also,my stomach (gastrointestinal discomfort) has gotten much, much better. I don’t really have random pain anymore, now I just have to be watchful and careful of my diet and my exercise, which are all great things!” —A five-year follow-up report from a 28-year-old woman who had previously suffered from severe vulvodynia (pelvic floor pain).
Numerous clients and students have reported that implementing self-healing strategies–common sense suggestions often known as “grandmother’s therapy”—significantly improves their health and find that their symptoms decreased or disappeared (Peper et al, 2014). These educational self-healing approaches are based upon a holistic perspective aimed to reduce physical, emotional and lifestyle patterns that interfere with healing and to increase those life patterns that support healing. This may mean learning diaphragmatic breathing, doing work that give you meaning and energy, alternating between excitation and regeneration, and living a life congruent with our evolutionary past.
If you experience discomfort/symptoms and worry about your health/well-being, do the following:
- See your health professional for diagnosis and treatment suggestions.
- Ask what are the benefits and risks of treatment.
- Ask what would happen if you if you first implemented self-healing strategies before beginning the recommended and sometimes invasive treatment?
- Investigate how you could be affecting your self-healing potential such as:
- Lack of sleep
- Too much sugar, processed foods, coffee, alcohol, etc.
- Lack of exercise
- Limited social support
- Ongoing anger, resentment, frustration, and worry
- Lack of hope and purpose
- Implement self-healing strategies and lifestyle changes to support your healing response. In many cases, you may experience positive changes within three weeks. Obviously, if you feel worse, stop and reassess. Keep a log and monitor what you do so that you can record changes.
This self-healing process has often been labeled or dismissed as the “placebo effect;” however, the placebo effect is the body’s natural self-healing response (Peper & Harvey, 2017). It is impressive that many people report feeling better when they take charge and become active participants in their own healing process. A process that empowers and supports hope and healing. When participants change their life patterns, they often feel better. Their health worries and concerns become reminders/cues to initiate positive action such as:
- Practicing self-healing techniques throughout the day (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, self-healing imagery, meditation, and relaxation)
- Eating organic foods and eliminating processed foods
- Incorporating daily exercise and movement activities
- Accepting what is and resolving resentment, anger and fear
- Taking time to regenerate
- Resolving stress
- Focusing on what you like to do
- Be loving to yourself and others
For suggestions of what to do, explore some of the following blogs that describe self-healing practices that participants implemented to improve or eliminate their symptoms.
Hot flashes and premenstrual symptoms https://peperperspective.com/2015/02/18/reduce-hot-flashes-and-premenstrual-symptoms-with-breathing/
Internet addiction https://peperperspective.com/2018/02/10/digital-addiction/
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) https://peperperspective.com/2017/06/23/healing-irritable-bowel-syndrome-with-diaphragmatic-breathing/
Math and test anxiety https://peperperspective.com/2018/07/03/do-better-in-math-dont-slouch-be-tall/
Trichotillomania (hair pulling) https://peperperspective.com/2015/03/07/interrupt-chained-behaviors-overcome-smoking-eczema-and-hair-pulling/
Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154-160.
I quickly gasped twice and a sharp pain radiated up my head and into my eye. I shifted to slow breathing and it faded away.
I felt anxious and became aware of my heart palpitations at the end of practicing 70% exhalation for 30 seconds. I was very surprised how quickly my anxiety was triggered when I changed my breathing pattern.
Breathing is the body/mind/emotion/spirit interface which is reflected in our language with phrases such as a sigh of relief, all choked up, breathless, full of hot air, waiting with bated breath, inspired or expired, all puffed up, breathing room, or it takes my breath away. The colloquial phrases reflect that breathing is more than gas exchange and may have the following effects.
- Changes the lymph and venous blood return from the abdomen (Piller, Leduc, & Ryan, 2006). The downward movement of the diaphragm with the corresponding expansion of the abdomen occurs during inhalation as well as slight relaxation of the pelvic floor. The constriction of the abdomen and slight tightening of the pelvic floor causing the diaphragm to go upward and allows exhalation. This dynamic movement increases and decreases internal abdominal and thoracic pressures and acts a pump to facilitate the venous and lymph return from the abdomen. In many people this dynamic pumping action is reduced because the abdomen does not expand during inhalation as it is constricted by tight clothing (designer jean syndrome), holding the abdomen in to maintain a slim self-image, tightening the abdomen in response to fear, or the result of learned disuse to reduce pain from abdominal surgery, gastrointestinal disorders, or abdominal insults (Peper et al, 2015).
- Increases spinal disk movement. Effortless diaphragmatic breathing is a whole body process and associated with improved functional movement (Bradley, & Esformes, 2014). The spine slightly flexes when we exhale and extends when we inhale which allows dynamic disk movement unless we sit in a chair.
- Communicates our emotional state as our breathing patterns reflect our emotional state. When we are anxious or fearful the breath usually quickens and becomes shallow while when we relax the breath slows and the movement is more in the abdomen (Homma, & Masoka, 2008).
- Evokes, maintains, inhibits symptoms or promotes healing. Breathing changes our physiology, thoughts and emotions. When breathing slowly to about 6 breaths a minute, it may enhance heart rate variability and thereby increase sympathetic and parasympathetic balance (Lehrer & Gevirtz, 2014; Moss & Shaffer, 2017).
Can breathing trigger symptoms?
A fifty-five year old woman asked for suggestions what she could do to prevent the occurrence of episodic prodrome and aura symptoms of visual disturbances and problems in concentration that would signal the onset of a migraine. In the past, she had learned to control her migraines with biofeedback; however, she now experienced these prodromal sensation more and more frequently without experiencing the migraine. As she was talking, I observed that she was slightly gasping before speaking with shallow rapid breathing in her chest.
To explore whether breathing pattern may contribute to evoke, maintain or amplify symptoms, the following two behavioral breathing challenges can suggest whether breathing is a factor: Rapid fearful gasping or 70% exhalation.
Behavioral breathing challenge: Rapid fearful gasping
Take a rapid fearful gasp when inhaling as if your feel scared or fearful. Let the air really quickly come in and repeat two or three times as described in the video. Then describe what you experienced.
If you became aware of the onset of a symptom or that the symptom intensified, then your dysfunctional breathing patterns (e.g., gasping, breath holding or shallow chest breathing) may contribute to development or maintenance of these symptoms. For many people when they gasp–a big rapid inhalation as if they are terrified–it may evoke their specific symptom such as a pain sensation in the back of the eye, slight pain in the neck, blanking out, not being able to think clearly, tightness and stiffness in their back, or even an increase in achiness in their joints (Peper et al, 2016).
To reduce or avoid triggering the symptom, breathe diaphragmatically without effort; namely each time you gasp, hold your breath or breathe shallowly, shift to effortless diaphragmatic breathing.
The above case of the woman with the prodromal migraine symptoms, she experienced visual disturbances and fuzziness in her head after the gasping. This experience allowed her to realize that her breathing style could be a contributing in triggering her symptoms. When she then practiced slow diaphragmatic breathing for a few breaths her symptoms disappeared. Hopefully, if she replaces gasping and shallow breathing with effortless diaphragmatic breathing then there is a possibility that her symptoms may no longer occur.
Behavioral breathing challenge: 70% exhalation
While sitting, breathe normally for a minute. Now change your breathing pattern so that you exhale only 70% or your previous inhaled air. Each time you exhale, exhale only 70% of the inhaled volume. If you need to stop, just stop, and then return to this breathing pattern again by exhaling only 70 percent of the inhaled volume of air. After 30 seconds, let go and breathe normally as guided by the video clip. Observe what happened?
In our research study with 35 volunteers, almost all participants experienced an increase in arousal and symptoms such as lightheadedness, dizziness, anxiety, breathless, neck and shoulder tension after 30 seconds of incomplete exhalation as shown in Figure 1 and Table 1 (Peper and MacHose, 1993).
Figure 1. Increase in anxiety evoked by 70% exhalation.
Table 1. Symptoms experienced after exhalation 70%.
Although these symptoms may be similar to those evoked by hyperventilation and overbreathing, they are probably not caused by the reduction of end-tidal carbon dioxide (CO2). The apparent decrease in end-tidal PCO2 is cause by the room air mixing with the exhaled air and not a measure of end-tidal CO2 (Peper and Tibbets, 1992). Most likely the symptoms are associated by the shallow breathing that occurs when we were scared or terrified.
People who have a history of anxiety, panic, nervousness and tension as compared to those who report low anxiety tend to report more symptoms when exhaling 70% of inhaled air for 30 seconds. If this practice evoked symptoms, then changing the breathing patterns to slower diaphragmatic breathing may be a useful self-regulation strategy to optimize health.
These two behavior breathing challenges are useful demonstrations for students and clients that breathing patterns can influence symptoms. By experiencing ON and OFF control over their symptoms with breathing, the person now knows that breathing can affect their health and well being.
Blogs that that offer instructions to learn effortless diaphragmatic breathing
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. DOI: 10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.06
Peper, E. & Tibbetts, V. (1992). The effect of 70% exhalation and thoracic breathing upon end-tidal C02. Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Wheat Ridge, CO: AAPB, 126-129. Abstract in: Biofeedback and Self-Regulation. 17(4), 333-334.
Each time when I commute with BART to San Francisco State University, I put on my sound cancelling headphones to block out the screeching sounds of the wheels scrapping against the rails and listen to the superb pod cast, Hidden Brain. This podcast is hosted by NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam and links research from psychology and neurobiology with findings from economics, anthropology, and sociology, among other field
It uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, and the biases that shape our choices (text adapted from: Hidden Brain.
I continue to be surprised by the remarkable knowledge presented in a storytelling format that is “a conversation about life’s unseen patterns.” As I listen, the commute time disappears and I have a front row seat to an outstanding podcast.
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.