Healing from vulvodynia

Pamela Jertberg and Erik Peper

Adapted from: Jertberg, P. & Peper, E. (2023). The healing of vulvodynia from the client’s perspective. Biofeedback, 51 (1), 18–21.  https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-51.01.02

This introspective report describes how a young woman who experienced a year-long struggle with vulvodynia, or vulvar vestibulitis, regained her health through biofeedback training and continues to be symptom-free 7 years after the intervention. This perspective may offer insight into factors that promote health and healing and provide an approach to reduce symptoms and promote health. The methodology of this case was described previously by Peper et al. (2015).

The Client’s Experience

I have been a healthy young woman my whole life. Growing up in a loving, dedicated family, I always ate home-cooked meals, went to bed at a reasonable time, and got plenty of exercise by playing with my family members and friends. I never once thought that at age 23 I might be at risk of undergoing vulvar surgery. There are many factors that contributed to the genesis of my vulvar pain, and many other factors that worsened this pain. Traditional medicine did not help me, and I did not find relief until I met my biofeedback practitioner, who taught me biofeedback. Through the many strategies I learned, such as visualization, diaphragmatic breathing techniques, diet tips, and skills to reframe my thoughts, I finally began to feel relief and hope. Practicing all these elements every day helped me overcome my physical pain and enjoy a normal life once again. Today, I do not have any vulvar discomfort. I am so grateful to my biofeedback practitioner for the many skills he taught me. I can enjoy my daily activities once again without experiencing pain. I have been given a second chance at loving life, and now I have learned the techniques that will help me sustain a more balanced path for the rest of my life. Seven years later, I am healthy and have no symptoms.

Triggers for Illness

Not Having a Positive Relationship with the Doctor

The first factor that aggravated my pain was having a doctor with whom I did not have a good relationship. Although the vulvar specialist I was referred to had treated hundreds of women with vulvar vestibulitis, his methods were very traditional: medicine, low oxalate diet, ointments, and surgery. Whenever I left his office, I would cry and feel like surgery was the only option. Vaginal surgery at 23 was one of the scariest and most unexpected thoughts my brain had ever considered. The doctor never thought of the impact that his words and treatment would have on my mental state.

Depression

Being depressed also triggered more pain. Whenever I would have feelings of hopelessness and create irrational beliefs in my mind (“I will never get better,” “I will never have sex again,” “I am not a woman anymore”), my physical pain would increase. Having depression only triggered more depression and pain, and this became a vicious cycle. The depression deeply affected my relationships with my boyfriend, friends, and family and my performance in my college classes.

Being Sedentary

Being sedentary and not exercising also increased my pain. At first, I believed that the mere act of sitting down hurt me due to the direct pressure on the area, but after a few months I came to realize that it was inactivity itself that triggered pain. Whenever I would sit for too long writing a paper or I would stay home all day because of my depression, my pain would increase, perhaps because I was inhibiting circulation. Still, when I am inactive most of the day, I feel lethargic and bloated. When I exercise, the pain goes away 100%. Exercise is almost magical.

Stress

Stress is the worst trigger for pain. Throughout my life, I always strived to be perfect in every way, meaning I was stressed about the way I looked, performed in school, drove, etc. Through the sessions with my biofeedback practitioner, I learned that my body was in a state of perpetual stress and tightness, which induced pain in certain areas. My body’s way of releasing such tension was to send pain signals to my vulvar area, perhaps because of a yeast infection a couple of months back. Still, if I become very stressed, I will feel pain or tightness in certain parts of my body, but now I have strategies for performing proper stress-relieving techniques.

Processed Foods

Junk food affects me instantly. When I eat processed foods for a week straight, I feel groggy, bloated, lethargic, and in pain. Processed sugar, white flour, and salt are a few of the foods that make the pain increase. I used to love sugar, so I would enjoy the occasional milkshake and cheeseburger and feel mostly okay. However, in times of stress it became crucial for me to learn to refrain from any junk food, because it would worsen my vulvar pain and increase my overall stress levels.

Menstruation

Menstruation is unavoidable, and unfortunately it would always worsen my vulvar pain. Right about the time of my period, my sensitivity and pain would massively increase. Sometimes as my pain would increase incredibly, I would question myself: “What am I doing wrong?” Then, I would remember: “Oh yes, I am getting my period in a few days.” The whole area became very sensitive and would get irritated easily. It became imperative to listen to my body and nurture myself especially around that time of the month.

Triggers for Healing

A Good Doctor

Just as I learned which factors triggered the pain, I also learned how to reduce it. The most important factor that helped me find true relief was meeting a good health professional (which could be a healer, nurse, or professor). The first time I met my biofeedback practitioner and told him about my issues, he really listened, gave me positive feedback, and even made jokes with me. To this day we still have a friendship, which has really aided me in getting better. In contrast to the vulvar specialist, I would leave the biofeedback practitioner’s office feeling powerful, able to defeat vulvodynia, and truly happy. Just having this support from a professional (or a friend, boyfriend, or relative) can make all the difference in the world. I don’t know where I would be right now if I hadn’t worked with him.

Positive Thoughts and Beliefs

Along with having a good support group, having positive thoughts and believing in a positive result helped me greatly. When I actually set my mind to feel “happy” and to believe that I was getting better, I began to really heal. After months of being depressed and feeling incomplete, when I began to practice mantras such as “I am healing,” “I am healthy,” and “I am happy,” my pain began to go away, and I was able to reclaim my life.

Journaling

One of the ways in which “happiness” became easier to achieve was to journal every day. I would write everything: from my secrets to what I ate, my pain levels, my goals for the day, and my symptoms. Writing down everything and knowing that no one would ever read it but me gave me relief, and my journal became my confidante. I still journal every day, and if I forget to write, the next day I will write twice as much. Now that writing has become a habit and a hobby, it is hard to imagine my life without that level of introspection.

Meditation

Although I would do yoga often, I would never sit and meditate. I began to use Dr. Peper’s guided meditations and Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s CD (Kabat-Zinn, 2006Peper et al., 2002). The combination of these meditation techniques, whether on different days or on the same day, helped me focus on my breathing and relax my muscles and mind. Today, I meditate at least 20 min each day, and I feel that it helps me see life through a more willing and patient perspective. In addition, through meditation and deep breathing I have learned to control my pain levels, concentration, and awareness.

Imagery and Visualization

Imagery is a powerful tool that allowed me to heal faster. My biofeedback practitioner instructed me to visualize how I wanted to feel and look. In addition, he suggested that I draw and color how I was feeling at any given moment, my imagined healing process, and how I would look and feel after the healing process had traveled throughout my body (Peper et al., 2022). It is still amazing to me how much imagery helped me. Even visualizing here and there throughout the day helped. Now I envision how I want to feel as a healthy woman, I take a deep breath, and as a I breathe out I let my imagined healing process go through my body into all my tight areas along with the exhalation.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback is the single strategy that helped me the most. During my first session with my biofeedback practitioner, he pointed out that my muscles were always contracted and stressed and that I was not breathing diaphragmatically. As I learned how to take deep belly breaths, I began to feel the tight areas in my body loosen up. I started to practice controlled breathing 20 min every day. Through biofeedback, my body and muscles became more relaxed, promoting circulation and ultimately reducing the vulvar pain.

Regular Exercise and Yoga

Exercising daily decreased my pain and improved the quality of my life greatly. When I first started experiencing significant vulvar pain, I stopped exercising because I felt that movement would aggravate the pain. To my surprise, the opposite was true. Being sedentary increased the feelings of discomfort, whereas exercising released the tension. The exercise I found most helpful was yoga because it is meditation in movement. I became so focused on my breathing and the poses that my brain did not have time to think about anything else. After attending every yoga class, I felt like I could take on anything. Swimming, Pilates, and gentle cardiovascular exercises have also helped me greatly in reducing stress and feeling great.

Sex

Although sex was impossible for almost a year due to the pain, it became possible and even enjoyable after implementing other relaxation strategies. When I first reintroduced sex back into my life, my partner at the time and I would go gently and stop if it hurt my vulvar area at all. Today, sex again is joyful. Being able to engage in intercourse has boosted my self-esteem and helped me feel sexy again, which empowers me to keep practicing the relaxation techniques.

Listening to the Mind-Body Connection

The mind-body connection is present in all of us, but I am fortunate to have a very strong connection. My thoughts influence my body almost instantly, which is why when I would get depressed my pain would increase, and when I would see my biofeedback practitioner or believe in a good outcome, my pain would decrease. Being aware of this connection is crucial because it can help me or hurt me greatly. After a few months of practicing the relaxation strategies, I saw a different gynecologist and one dermatologist. Both professionals said that there was nothing wrong with my vulvar area—that maybe I just felt some irritation due to the medicines I had previously taken and my current stress. They said that there was no way I needed surgery. When I heard these opinions, I began to feel instantly better—thus proving that my thoughts (and even others’ thoughts) affect my body in significant ways.

Although today I am 100% better, I still experience pain and tightness in my body when I experience the “illness factors” I mentioned above. I still have to remember that feeling healthy and good is a process, not a result, and that even if I feel better one day that does not mean I can stop all my new healthy habits. To completely cure vulvodynia, I needed to change my life habits, perspective, and attitude toward the illness and life. I needed to make significant changes, and now my biggest challenge is to stick to those changes. Biofeedback, imagery, meditation, good food, and exercise are not just treatments that I begin and end on a certain day, but rather they have become essential components of my life forever.

My life with vulvodynia was ultimately a journey of introspection, decision making, and life-changing habits. I struggled with vulvar pain for over a year, and during that year I experienced severe symptoms, depression, and the loss of several friendships and relationships. I felt old, hopeless, useless, and powerless. When I began to incorporate biofeedback, relaxation techniques, journaling, visualization, a proper diet, and regular exercise, life took a turn for the better. Not only did my vulvar pain begin to decrease, but the quality of my overall life improved and I regained the self-confidence I had lost. I became happy, hopeful, and proactive. Even though I practiced the relaxation strategies every day, the pain did not go away in a day or even a month. It took me several months of diligent practice to truly heal my vulvar pain. Even today, such practices have carried on to all areas of my life, and now there is not a day when I do not meditate, even for 5 min.

As paradoxical as it may seem, vulvodynia was a blessing in disguise. I believe that vulvodynia was my body’s way of signaling to me that many areas of my life were in perpetual stress: my pelvic floor, my thoracic breathing, my romantic relationship at the time, etc. When I learned to let go and truly embrace my life, I began to feel relief. I became less irritable and more patient and understanding, with both my body and the outside world. The best advice I can give a woman with vulvar symptoms or any person with otherwise inexplicable chronic pain is to apply the strategies that work for you and stick to them every day—even on the days when you want to go astray. When I started to focus on what my body needed to be nurtured and to live my life and do the things I truly wanted to do, I became free. Today, I live in a way that allows me to find peace, serenity, pride, and fun. I live exactly the way I want to, and I find the time to follow my passions. Vulvodynia, or any kind of chronic pain, does not define who we are. We define who we are.

Conclusion

This introspective account of the client’s personal experience with biofeedback suggests that healing is multidimensional. We suggest that practitioners use a holistic approach, which can provide hope and relief to clients who suffer from vulvodynia or other disorders that are often misunderstood and underreported.

Useful blogs

References

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2006). Coming to our senses: Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness. Hachette Books

Peper, E., Cosby, J. & Almendras, M. (2022). Healing chronic back pain. NeuroRegulation, 9(3), 164–172.  https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.9.3.164

Peper, E., Gibney, K.H, & Holt, C.F. (2002. Make health happen: Training yourself to create wellness. Kendall/Hunt.

Peper, E. Martinex, Aranda, P. & Moss, D. (2015). Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report. Biofeedback, 43(2), 103–109. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-43.2.04


Thoughts Have the Power to Create or Eliminate Body Tension

By Tami Bulmash republished from: Medium-Body Wisdom

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

The mind and body have long been regarded and treated as separate entities, yet this distinction does little to promote holistic health. Understanding the direct relationship between thoughts and body tension can illustrate how the mind and body either work dysfunctionally through separation, or optimally as a unit.

Mental and physical aren’t separate entities

Stress and pain existed long before the coronavirus, though it was highlighted during this isolating era. In the height of the pandemic nearly eight in 10 American adults cited COVID-19 as a significant stressor. Though it may no longer be front page news, the aftermath of COVID still lingers. Its toll on mental health continues to impact children and adults alike. The shift to remote work was appealing at first, but later created a more pervasive sedentary lifestyle. Now the concern has shifted to an emerging pandemic of back pain.

Yet, there is nothing novel about body tension brought forth by stressful thinking. In 2014, the American Institute of Stress reported 77 percent of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. Moreover, the findings of a 2018 Gallup poll suggest 55 percent of Americans report feeling stressed for a large part of their day. This is compounded by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons finding one in two Americans have a musculoskeletal condition. Discerning between mental and physical stress is becoming increasingly obscure.

While the mind and body have long been regarded and treated as separate entities, this distinction does little to promote holistic health. Understanding the direct relationship between thoughts and tension can illustrate how the mind and body either work dysfunctionally through separation, or optimally as a unit. What’s more, viewing the body as a whole being — in thought and activity — can promote better habits which eliminate tension.

The link between stress and pain

Dividing the self into parts is common practice in the Western world. Expressions such as “I’m mentally exhausted” vs. “I’m physically exhausted” provoke differing self-reflections. However, the psycho-physical relationship is evident in the tension stimulated by either thought. For example, sitting in front of a computer necessitates both thought and action. Viewing content on a screen lends itself to a reaction from behind the screen. This response can be minimal and inconsequential, or it can be subtle, yet critical.

Repeatedly engaging in certain thinking habits like, “I have to get this done and fast” are often reflected in forms of body tension such as stiff fingers at the keyboard, a clenched jaw after a meeting, or tense neck at the end of the day. These unconscious responses are common and have a pervasive effect.

The prevalence of technology has led to a plethora of occupational ailments, now referred to as technology diseases. These include carpal tunnel syndrome, mouse shoulder, and cervical pain syndrome and occur because of excessive work at the computer — especially keyboard and mouse usage. According to the book, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, by Drs. Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass, 45 million people suffer from tension headaches, carpal tunnel, and back injuries linked to computer use and more than 30 percent of North Americans who work at a computer develop a muscle strain injury every year.

Pushing through mental tasks is reflected in the physical

Dr. Peper, a biofeedback expert and Professor of Holistic Health at San Francisco State University, gives an illustration of the mind-body connection in relation to pain. His example requires the use of a computer mouse while trying to complete difficult mental tasks. He asks me to hold the mouse in my dominant hand and draw with it the last letter of an address. Then continue to go backward with each letter of the street name, making sure the letter height is only one-half of an inch. He tells me to perform the task as quickly as possible. As I’m drawing the address backwards trying to recall the letters and their order, Dr. Peper commands, “Do it quicker, quicker, quicker! Don’t make a mistake! Quicker, quicker, quicker!”

These commands reflect the endless to-do lists that pile up throughout the day and the stress associated with their efficacy and timely completion. While enacting this task, Dr. Peper asks me, “Are you tightening your shoulders? Are you tightening your trunk? Are you raising your shoulders possibly holding all this tension? If you are like most people who do this task, you did all of that and you were totally unaware. We are usually really unaware of our body posture.”

I have spent the past 20 years practicing the Alexander Technique, a method used to improve postural health. At its core the technique is about observation and utilizing psycho-physical awareness to stop repeating harmful habits. Dr. Peper’s words resonate because becoming aware of unconscious responses isn’t easy. Most people are completely unaware of the relationship between mind-body habits and how they contribute to stress-related pain.

Posture affects mood and energy levels

Posture is often thought of as a pose — most notably being associated with “sitting up straight”. Yet the health implications of good posture extend far beyond any held position. The agility and movement which are evident in good posture exemplify the mind-body connection.

It is well-known that feeling depressed has been linked to having less subjective energy. The American Psychiatric Association listed a variety of symptoms connected to depression including feeling sad or having a depressed mood, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, and loss of energy or increased fatigue. While the treatment of depression hasn’t traditionally considered the role of posture in informing mood, researchers have started exploring this relationship.

A study by Dr. Peper and Dr. I-Mei Lin examined the subjective energy levels of university students and their corresponding expression of depression. Participants who walked in a slouched position reported lower energy levels and higher self-rated depression scores. In contrast, when those participants walked in a pattern of opposite arm and leg skipping, they experienced an increase in energy, allowing a positive mindset to ensue.

As mentioned in the study, the mind-body relationship is a two-way street: mind to body and body to mind. If thoughts are manifested in the way one holds their body, the inverse would also be true. Namely, changing the way one carries their body would also influence their thinking and subsequent mood. If stopping certain habits — such as walking in a slumped posture — could have a positive impact on mood and well-being, perhaps it’s worth exploring the mind-body relationship even further.

Supporting the mind-body connection

One of the best ways to improve the mind-body connection is through awareness. The more present you are in your activities, the more unified the relation becomes. Give yourself a couple of minutes to connect your thoughts with what you are doing at the moment.

Begin With Grounding

If you are sitting down, imagine coloring in the space of your whole body with an imaginary marker. Begin with your feet planted on the floor. Start to outline the footprints of your feet and then color in the bottom and top of each foot. Take your time. Fill in all the space. See if you discover new parts of your feet — like the spaces between your toes. Continue up through your ankles and toward your calves. Pay attention to the entire limb (front and back). Work your way upward through the knee and then the upper leg. See if you can find your sit bones along the way to the torso. Explore new joints — such as the hip joint.

Lengthen Your Body Through Thought

Continue up while circling the front and back of the torso. Extend the awareness of your thoughts through your shoulders. Allow for an exploration of the arms — noting the joints such as the elbows, wrists and fingers. Pay attention to their length and mobility. Come back up through the arms. Extend up through the shoulders again, this time noting the passage through the chest and neck. Observe the length and space within your entire being. Journey up to the head and travel around its circumference. Imagine filling your head space with air. Picture the wholeness of your head from top to bottom and side to side.

This two-minute mind-body meditation allows you to feel the full extent of the space your body takes up. It is a way to awaken the senses and include them in conscious thinking. This helps generate awareness in how to engage the mind-body relationship optimally. The next time you try it, use a visual aid like an anatomy diagram of the whole body. This can also introduce new parts and spaces of the body you may not have thought of before. However, don’t rely on the diagram each time, as it can pull away your attention from the mind-body meditation. Instead, use it as a reference or guide every once in a while.

Learn from other cultures

In Western cultures, it is common practice to divvy up musculoskeletal ailments into an array of categories such as tension headaches, tension neck syndrome, or mechanical back syndrome. For instance, in countries like the U.S., it is normal to seek a specialist for each area of concern — like a neurologist for a migraine, an orthopedist for neck strain, or chiropractors for back pain. In contrast, Eastern lifestyles have historically taken a more holistic approach to treating (and healing) their patients.

An article by Dr. Cecilia Chan, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, explains how the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine adopt a holistic approach to the healing of an individual. Rather than diagnose and treat with medication, Chan and her colleagues explore health through the harmony and balance of the body-mind-spirit as a whole.

Because basic biology clearly delineates how the human head is attached to the body, it seems fitting that the entire being be regarded as a unit. By recognizing the relationship between thought stressors and their manifestation in the physical body, awareness is elevated. This, in turn, can prevent mindlessly engaging in harmful patterns that lead to stress and pain. Combating tension is possible through the realization of how thoughts — whether they are emotional or task oriented — directly impact the body as a whole.

This excerpt from Taro Gold’s book, Open Your Mind, Open Your Life: A Book of Eastern Wisdom, cites Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote which beautifully elucidates the mind-body connection:

Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words.

Keep your words positive, because your words become your behavior.

Keep your behavior positive, because your behavior becomes your habits.

Keep your habits positive, because your habits become your values.

Keep your values positive, because your values become your destiny.

Referring to the mind and body as separate entities perpetuates a disconnect in the being as a whole. This is why distinguishing the mental from the physical further exacerbates the notion that the two don’t work together as an indivisible unit. Understanding the relationship between stress and tension begins through the awareness of habits.

There are recurrent thinking habits like “I’ve got to get this done now” and their unconscious counterparts that become visible through posture. The unknown habits are the ones which accrue over time and often appear seemingly out of nowhere — in the form of tension or pain. Modern culture is quick to treat symptoms, such as those related to excessive technology use. However, a holistic approach to addressing the underlying issue would examine how stress and pain work hand in hand. Once the thoughts change, so will the tension.


Biofeedback, posture and breath: Tools for health

Two recent presentations that that provide concepts and pragmatic skills to improve health and well being.  

How changing your breathing and posture can change your life.

In-depth podcast in which Dr. Abby Metcalf, producer of Relationships made easy, interviews Dr. Erik Peper.  He discusses how changing your posture and how you breathe may result in major improvement with issues such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, chronic pain, and even insomnia! In the presentation he explain how this works and shares practical tools to make the changes you want in your life.

How to cope with TechStress

A wide ranging discussing between Dr. Russel Jaffe and Dr Erik that explores the power of biofeedback, self-healing strategies and how to cope with tech-stress.

These concepts are also explored in the book, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics.  You may find this book useful as we spend so much time working online. The book describes the impacts personal technology on our physical and emotional well-being. More importantly, “Tech Stress” provides all of the basic tools to be able not only to survive in this new world but also thrive in it.

Additiona resources:

Gonzalez, D. (2022). Ways to improve your posture at home.


Hope for insomnia, depression, anxiety, ADHD, exhaustion, and nasal congestion -Breathe light, slow and deep

Anxiety, depression, insomnia, exhaustion, ADHD, allergies, poor performance have all increased (Barendse et al., 2021; London & Landes, 2021; Peper et al, 2022a; Peper et al, 2022b; Vasileiadou et al, 2021). One of the unrecognized contributing factor is dysfunctional mouth breathing (McKeown, 2022). Improve health by learning to breathe in and out through the nose during the day and night. Listen to the inspiring presentation by Patrick McKeown, author of the superb book, The breathing cure-Develop  new habits for a healthier, happier & long life (McKeown, 2022). In this presentation, he describes the science behind these disorders, the rationale for breathing light, slow and deep and offers simple breathing exercises to reduce symptoms and improve performance.

References

Barendse, M., Flannery, J., Cavanagh, C., Aristizabal, M., Becker, S. P., Berger, E., … & Pfeifer, J. (2021). Longitudinal change in adolescent depression and anxiety symptoms from before to during the COVID-19 pandemic: A collaborative of 12 samples from 3 countries. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/hn7us

London, A.S. & Landes, S.D. (2021). Cohort Change in the Prevalence of ADHD Among U.S. Adults: Evidence of a Gender-Specific Historical Period Effect.  Journal of attention disorders, 25(6), 771-782. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054719855689

McKeown, P. (2022). The breathing cure-Develop  new habits for a healthier, happier & long life.  West Palm Beach, FL: Humanix Books.

Peper, E. (2022). Reduce anxiety. the peperperspective. https://peperperspective.com/2022/03/23/reduce-anxiety/

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Cuellar, Y., & Membrila, C. (2022b). Reduce  anxiety. NeuroRegulation, 9(2), 91–97. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.9.2.91  

Vasileiadou, S., Ekerljung, L., Bjerg, A., & Goksor, E. (2021). Asthma increased in young adults from 2008–2016 despite stable allergic rhinitis and reduced smoking. PLoS ONE, 16(6): e0253322. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0253322    


Hope for abdominal discomfort

Adapted from: Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2022). Nausea and GI discomfort: A biofeedback assessment model to create a rational for training. Biofeedback, 50(1), 24–32.  https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-50.1.05

Abdominal discomfort and pain such as functional abdominal pain, acid reflux or irritable bowel affects many people. Teaching slower biofeedback-assisted HRV breathing with biofeedback is a useful strategy by which the person may be able to reduce symptoms. This essay provides detailed instruction for a first session assessment for clients who have abdominal discomfort (functional abdominal pain). Descriptions include how the physiological recording can be used to understand a possible etiology of the illness, to create a biological/evolutionary based explanation that is readily understood by the client, and finally to offer self-regulation suggestions to improve health.

Background of abdominal discomfort (irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, functional abdominal pain, recurrent abdominal pain)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects 7% to 21% of the general population in Western cultures with a global prevalence estimated at around 11% (Fairbrass, Costantino, Gracie, & Ford, 2020). The chronic symptoms (i.e., lasting more than 30 days) usually include abdominal cramping, discomfort or pain, bloating, loose or frequent stools and constipation, which 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 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. IBS and RAP are contrasted to various types of diseases such as Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease or ulcerative colitis.

Multiple factors may contribute to IBS, such as genetics, food allergies, previous treatment with antibiotics, infections, psychological status and stress. More recently, dietary factors contributing to changes in the intestinal and colonic microbiome resulting in small intestine bacterial overgrowth have been suggested as another risk factor (Dupont, 2014). Generally, standard medical treatments (reassurance, dietary manipulation and of pharmacological therapy) are often ineffective in reducing IBS symptoms (Chey et al., 2015). On the other hand, complementary and alternative approaches such as biofeedback-assisted relaxation techniques (Davidoff & Whitehead, 1996; Goldenberg et al., 2019; Stern et al. 2014), autogenic training (Luthe & Schultz, 1969) and cognitive therapy are more effective than traditional medical treatment (Vlieger et al., 2008).

Biofeedback-assisted relaxation training typically moderates IBS or RAP symptoms by restoring balance in the nervous system (sympathetic/parasympathetic autonomic balance), such as through heart rate variability (HRV) breathing training. For example, Sowder et al. (2010) as well as Sun et al. (2016) demonstrated that functional abdominal pain can be reduced with HRV feedback training. In most cases, increased vagal tone was achieved by breathing at about six breaths per minute. While Taneja et al. (2004) reported that yogic breathing decreased diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome symptoms  significantly more than conventional  treatment in a randomized control study.Sympathetic/parasympathetic balance can be enhanced by increasing HRV, which occurs when a person breathes at their resonant frequency, which is usually 5–7 breaths per minute. For most people, the HRV training means breathing at much slower rate. A benefit of slow abdominal breathing appears to be a self-control strategy that can reduce symptoms of IBS, RAP and similar functional abdominal pain symptoms.

Mastery of effortless diaphragmatic breathing can be affected by injury, surgery or similar insults to the abdominal area (Peper et al., 2015). In addition, dysregulation of diaphragm, which is enervated by the phrenic nerve and the vagus nerve, along with dysregulation of other abdominal muscles appears to be associated with irritable bowel syndrome (Bordoni & Morabito, 2018). It is likely that slower biofeedback-assisted HRV breathing training restores abdominal muscles and diaphragmatic movement, theoretically by tonic and phasic regulation of the phrenic and vagal nerve activity (cf. Marchenko et al., 2015; Streeter et al., 2012). The theory, simply stated, is that HRV breathing training at an individual’s resonant frequency produces increases in regulatory neurotransmitters, particularly gamma amino butyric acid (GABA). Many of our students who complain of abdominal discomfort report reductions of symptoms following HRV breathing training.

Consistently for more than 40 years, we have taught undergraduate students a semester-long integrated stress management program that includes modified progressive relaxation, slow diaphragmatic breathing and changing internal language as outlined in the book, Make Health Happen, by Peper, Gibney & Holt (2002). At the end of each semester, numerous students report that their anxiety, gastrointestinal distress and other symptoms related to self-described IBS or RAP have decreased or disappeared (Peper et al., 2014; Peper, Miceli, & Harvey, 2016; Peper, Mason, Huey, 2017; Peper et al., 2020). Abdominal discomfort is prevalent experience of distress by college students. In our recent survey of 99 undergraduate students, 41% self-reported abdominal discomfort (25% irritable bowel or acid reflux), 86% self-reported anxiety, 70% neck and shoulder tension and 48% headaches. After practicing slower breathing (i.e., typically directing them to breath abdominally at a rate of about six breaths a minute) and focus on slower exhalation and allowing the air to flow in without effort as the abdominal wall expands, as a homework assignment for a week, many reported that their symptoms significantly decreased (Peper, Harvey, Cuellar, & Membrila, in press).

Case example illustrating how to use the physiological recording to guide the client discussion and provide motivation

A 16-year-old high school junior suffered from abdomen discomfort for years. The symptoms mainly consisted of frequent constipation, and when it occurred, great discomfort from nausea. After having been diagnosed and undergoing all the necessary tests by the gastroenterologist, there was no identifiable cause of the chief complaints. Biofeedback was suggested as an alternative to medications for symptom reduction. During the biofeedback assessment and training session, the client discussed what she would like to learn from the session. It was challenging for her to respond to those questions. Not being able to report what the client would like from a training session is also a very common experience when working with students. A useful strategy is to describe experiences of other students that the clients could relate to, and imply that their abdominal discomfort is somewhat commonplace in other students.

Discussed during the session was the link between being very sensitive and reactive to other people’s feeling and being concerned about what others think of her. The client nodded her head in agreement. When describing herself, she discussed being very perfectionistic using a scale from being lackadaisical/undemanding to being perfectionistic (i.e., self-oriented perfectionism, self-worth contingencies, concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, self-criticism, socially prescribed perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, hypercriticism; see Smith, Saklofske, Stoeber, & Sherry, 2016).

Furthermore, the client sat slouched in the chair. Possibly her slouched posture implied a state of powerlessness instead of empowerment, a state of being ready to react and protect (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010; Cuddy, 2012; Peper, Lin, & Harvey, 2017).

Working hypotheses. The client was very sensitive and continuously reacted to external and internal signals with sympathetic arousal, while masking her reactions. These ongoing flight/flight responses would decrease intestinal peristalsis and abdominal blood flow, which would result in nausea, constipation and abdominal distress. Namely, the body reacts to the stimuli as signals of danger and blood flow is shunted away from the abdomen into the large muscles to run and fight. To paraphrase Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky (2004): Why should the body digest food and repair itself, if it is going to be the predator’s lunch? It is only when we are safe that we can digest and regenerate.

The session began by exploring how pressure on the abdomen could potentially affect experiences of nausea and abdominal distress. After explaining how the diaphragm descends and how abdominal content in the stomach can be displaced (spread out) during inhalation, we systematically changed her posture by placing and adjusting a small pillow behind her middle back so that she could sit tall. The tall posture resulted in an open feeling of empowerment not felt during slouching. She observed that breathing was slightly easier and felt there was more space in her abdomen. As she began to feel more comfortable during the training session, we discussed the impact of posture on the body. We also discussed the relationship between thoughts of perfectionism and abdominal discomfort. The discussion also included an exploration of why some people tend to curl-up and slouch in a protective posture (e.g., head down to protect the neck region and big bones of the arms and legs positioned to protect the core organs) when feeling self-consciousness or perfectionistic about body image.

Biofeedback monitoring for assessment

Psychophysiology was recorded with multichannel physiological system (Procomp Infinity System running Biograph Infinity software version 6.7.1, Thought Technology Ltd). Respiration was monitored with strain-gauge sensors placed around the abdomen and thoracic regions (for a discussion on sensor placement see Peper et al., 2016 and Chu et al., 2019). Blood volume pulse was recorded with the sensor placed on the left thumb. The thumb was used because the participant had small and cold fingers (for a discussion about blood volume pulse, see Peper et al, 2007 and Peper, Shafer, & Lin, 2010). Skin conductance was recorded with the sensor wrapped around the left index and middle fingers with the electrodes on the finger pads (for a discussion about skin conductance and normal values, see Khazan, 2019, and Shafer et al, 2016).

After sensors were attached and the signals explained, the client sat comfortably while looking at the screen. Unexpectedly the clinician clapped his hands and made a loud noise. The client reacted with a momentary startle and smile. The physiological response, showed an increase in skin conductance, decrease in pulse amplitude, decrease in abdominal diameter, and increase in heart rate, is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Physiological response to a loud noise (clap) (1) increased skin conductance, (2) decrease in pulse amplitude, (3) decrease in decreased abdominal circumference, and (4) increased heart rate and decreased heart rate variability.

The client was aware that she reacted to the clap; however, she was totally unaware how much her body responded. The computer screen display of her physiological reaction made the invisible visible. It provided the opportunity to discuss how various body reactions related to heart rate, breathing, and skin conductance could contribute to experiences of abdominal discomfort.

She was unaware that skin conductance did not return to baseline levels for more than 20 minutes. An elevated skin conductance level may mean that the body’s reaction to the hand-clap noise triggered a defense reaction and maintained the increased sympathetic activity for more than 20 minutes. Having a sustained flight/fight reaction to external stimuli such as a hand-clap would most likely affect digestive and peristalsis processes, contributing to symptoms found in IBS and RAP. The observations made during biofeedback monitoring led to a discussion of how sympathetic activation affects the gastrointestinal track.

Blood volume pulse amplitude decreased, which indicated a decrease in blood flow through her hands, which would decrease hand temperature and again indicated a systemic sympathetic activation.

Abdominal circumference decreased, which indicated that she tightened her abdominal muscles as a protective response to the hand-clap. She was unaware of the abdominal muscles tightening; however, she stated that she was aware that her breathing had changed. The abdominal muscle, which pulled the abdomen in, took almost two minutes to relax. The sustained muscle constriction around the abdomen increased pressure around the core organs, which may contribute to ongoing abdominal discomfort. A fight-flight reaction includes body bracing (e.g. tightened muscles, head down to protect the neck, big bones of arms and legs curled to protect core organs), and she confirmed that she experienced neck and shoulder tensions.

The discussion of abdominal muscle tension led to another discussion of how holding your stomach in may relate to self-image. For example, tight clothing can contribute to constricted movement around the abdomen. Wearing corsets contributed to psychophysiological symptoms, mainly for women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during a time when women who wore very tight corsets were diagnosed with neurasthenia. Simply stated, neurasthenia was characterized as a condition of mental and/or physical fatigue with at least two of the following symptoms: dyspepsia, dizziness, muscular aches or pains, tension headaches, inability to relax, irritability and sleep disturbance.

“Dyspepsia” was the commonly reported symptom of neurasthenia, which included upset stomach, a gnawing or burning stomach pain, heartburn, bloating, and or burping, nausea, and vomiting. The constricted waist region that resulted from wearing a corset in the name of fashion compromises the functions of both digestion and breathing. When the person inhales, the abdomen cannot expand as the diaphragm is flattening and pushing downward. Thus, the person is forced to breathe more shallowly by lifting their ribs; this increases neck and shoulder tension as well as the risk of anxiety, heart palpitation, and fatigue (Cohen & White, 1947; Courtney, 2009).

It also can contribute to abdominal discomfort since the abdomen is being squeezed by the corset and forcing the abdominal organs upward. Even architects of the Victorian era recognized a need for a place to position a chair or chaise lounge, such as at the top of some stairs, because people wearing corsets could faint, pass out or otherwise experience breathlessness through the effort of climbing the stairs with restrictive clothing around their abdomen (Melissa, 2015). Many of these symptoms could be easily reduced by wearing looser clothing and learning slower diaphragmatic breathing. In modern times, a related phenomenon results when people wear items of clothing that are too tight around their waist or abdomen (e.g., tight jeans) in service to fashion trends often labeled as designer jean syndrome (MacHose & Peper, 1991; Stonehewer, 2009). Similarly, when people wear garments that are too tight around their chest or thoracic region (e.g., tight vests) in service to external protection (e.g., athletes, industrial workers, police or soldiers wearing heavy, restrictive gear), then restrictive ventilatory disorders can occur (Harty et al., 1999). Simply stated, when the muscles related to breathing are restricted from moving, respiration is affected.

The client’s heart rate increased and stayed high for more than 30 seconds. The first decrease in heart rate at about 20 seconds after the hand-clap was a long sigh of relief as breathing (i.e., oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange) started again. It took almost 90 seconds before breathing and heart rate returned to normal as reflected by measures of HRV. The computer screen showing increased heart rate was reviewed with the client to explain how her body reacted with a fight-flight response to the hand-clap, as well as how regulating breathing through biofeedback training could lower the heart rate and reduce the sympathetic activation and enhance the parasympathetic activation.

Body responds to cognitive stressful thoughts

After discussion about the psychophysiological response to the hand-clap (a physical external stressor) and how other external stressors (e.g., startling noise) or internal stressors (e.g., perfectionistic ruminations) could trigger a similar response of abdominal muscle tightening, the assessment was repeated by having her relax and then think about a mental stressor, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Physiological responses to thinking about a past stressor (1) increased skin conductance, (2) decreased pulse amplitude, (3) decreased abdominal circumference, and (4) increased heart rate and decreased HRV.

The physiological response pattern to thinking about a past stressor was similar to the bodily reaction to a loud noise. The skin conductance increased and blood volume pulse amplitude decreased immediately after hearing (e.g., anticipating) the task of evoking/thinking of a past stressor. Most likely, the initial response was triggered by performance anxiety, then 6 seconds later the heart rate increased and breathing changed as she began experiencing the somatic reaction evoked by the recall of a negative stressor. The recordings also showed that her pulse amplitude decreased. The decrease in pulse amplitude suggested that her hands would probably become colder, which was confirmed by her self-report that she often experienced cold hands and feet. She reported being aware of the feeling an emotional reaction, but mainly noticing the change of breathing in her chest, and she was unaware of the abdominal changes. The client was surprised by how her body reacted to emotional thoughts. The recording viewed on the computer screen demonstrated objectively that her thoughts (initial performance anxiety) had a physical effect on her body. Specifically, experiencing the emotions that were evoked by recalling the stressful memory had a direct effect on the body in the same way that a physical external threat leads to a fight-flight response.

Building a psychophysiological model

Using these recorded computer images reflecting physical reactions to the hand clap and emotional thoughts, the discussion focused on how abdominal discomfort could be the result of activating a normal biological survival response. Survival responses would occur hundreds of times throughout a day, especially when worrying. Each thought would evoke the response, and the awareness of body reaction would evoke another reaction. Similar to how awareness of blushing amplifies blushing.

The client shared that she was very sensitive and reactive especially when other people were upset. She reported feeling “cursed” by their sensitivity and reactivity. The linguistic metaphor that could be used to describe her reactions is “she could not stomach what was going on.”

The discussion about physiological reactions provided the client with a model how her disorder (IBS and RAP) could have developed and been maintained over the years. The model matched her subjective experience: when stressed, the discomfort often increased. The discussion shifted to reframing her internal labels. Instead of describing her sensitivity as a curse, the sensitivity was reframed and labeled a gift; namely, she could sense many people’s emotional reactions, to which they would react in a variety of ways. She just needed to learn how to manage this sensitivity. Once she learned to manage it, she would have many advantages in interpersonal relations at home and at work. She would be able to sense what other people are experiencing. By reframing her symptoms as a result of a survival physiological response pattern, it reduces self- blame and offers solutions about how to master and change reactions and thereby have more control in the world.

Training to demonstrate control is possible.

The discussion was followed by teaching her diaphragmatic breathing in sitting and lying down positions. As she had no history of abdominal injuries, similar to many of our students, she rapidly demonstrated slower diaphragmatic breathing as shown in Figures 3 and 4.

Figure 3. The client practiced a few slower diaphragmatic breaths in the sitting and reclining position, which increased heart rate variability, decreased skin conductance and increased blood volume pulse amplitude.

Figure 4. Practicing slower diaphragmatic breathing at about six breaths per minute in a reclining position increased HRV.

With tactile coaching, she demonstrated that she could breathe at about six breaths per minute with the heart rate increasing during inhalation and decreasing during exhalation. She reported feeling more relaxed and that the sensations of nausea had disappeared. Additionally, her hands felt warmer. This recording provided proof that there was hope and that she could do something about her body’s psychophysiological responses.

The discussion focused on how breathing affecting heart rate variability. Namely, if she allowed exhalation to occur without effort, her heart rate decreased (the vagal response of slowing the heart) and thereby increased the parasympathetic activation that would support digestion and gastrointestinal functioning. Often when people practice effortless diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal noises (borborygmus)– the gurgling, rumbling, or squeaking noise from the abdomen–occur and indicate that intestinal activity is being activated, and that food, liquids and digestive juice are moving through the intestines. It is usually a positive indicator that the person is relaxing and sympathetic activity has been reduced.

During the last part of session, we reviewed how posture affects physiology, emotions and cognitions, as well as how posture and breathing would be the first step in beginning to reduce symptoms and enhance health. To provide additional information using video and bibliotherapy/education, we suggested that she watches the embedded videos in the blogs listed at the end of the article.  

Recommendations for future sessions and home practice

The recommended strategies for future sessions would focus on teaching the client to master slow diaphragmatic breathing and practicing that for 10–20 minutes per day. The teaching techniques would incorporate imagery to imagine air flowing down their arms and legs as she exhaled. . More importantly, the focus would shift to generalize the skill during the day; namely, whenever she would become aware of feeling stressed or observed herself holding her breath or breathing in her chest, she would use that as the cue to shift to slower abdominal breathing. Had the client continued training, future sessions would focus on mastering slower diaphragmatic breathing. The training would include relaxing the lower abdominal muscles during inhalation, increasing control of HRV, practicing imagining stress and use image to trigger slower breathing, and cognitive reframing practices to interrupt worrying and promote self-acceptance. The final goal is to generalize these skills into daily life as illustrated in the successful cases described in the following blogs

Blogs on posture:

References

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Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 10, 1363-1368. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797610383437

Chey, W. D., Kurlander, J., & Eswaran, S. (2015). Irritable bowel syndrome: a clinical review. Jama313(9), 949–958. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2015.0954

Chitkara, D. K., Rawat, D. J., & Talley, N. J. (2005). The epidemiology of childhood recurrent abdominal pain in Western countries: a systematic review. American journal of Gastroenterology100(8), 1868–1875. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1572-0241.2005.41893.x

Chu, M., Nguyen, T., Pandey, V., Zhou, Y., Pham, H. N., Bar-Yoseph, R., Radom-Aizik, S., Jain, R., Cooper, D. M., & Khine, M. (2019). Respiration rate and volume measurements using wearable strain sensors. NPJ digital medicine, 2(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41746-019-0083-3

Cohen, M. E. & White, P. D. (1947). Studies of breathing, pulmonary ventilation and subjective awareness of shortness of breath (dyspnea) in neurocirculatory asthenia, effort syndrome, anxiety neurosis. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 26(3), 520–529. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI101836

Courtney, R. (2009). The functions of breathing and its dysfunctions and their relationship to breathing therapy. International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, 12, 78–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijosm.2009.04.002

Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Talk, available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

Davidoff, A. L., & Whitehead, W. E. (1996). Biofeedback, relaxation training, and cognitive behavior modification: Treatments for functional GI disorders, In Olden, K, W. (ed). Handbook of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. CRC Press, 361–384.

Dupont, H. L. (2014). Review article: evidence for the role of gut microbiota in irritable bowel syndrome and its potential influence on therapeutic targets. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics39(10), 1033–1042. https://doi.org/10.1111/apt.12728

Fairbrass, K. M., Costantino, S. J., Gracie, D. J., & Ford, A. C. (2020). Prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome-type symptoms in patients with inflammatory bowel disease in remission: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 5(12), 1053–162. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2468-1253(20)30300-9

Goldenberg, J. Z., Brignall, M., Hamilton, M., Beardsley, J., Batson, R. D., Hawrelak, J., Lichtenstein, B., & Johnston, B. C. (2019). Biofeedback for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (11). https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD012530.pub2

Harty, H. R., Corfield, D. R., Schwartzstein, R. M., & Adams, L. (1999). External thoracic restriction, respiratory sensation, and ventilation during exercise in men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 86(4), 1142–1150. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1999.86.4.1142

Khazan, I. (2019). A guide to normal values for biofeedback. Biofeedback, 47(1), 2–5. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-47.1.03

Luthe, W. & Schultz, J. H. (1969). Autogenic Therapy Volume II: Medical Applications. Grune & Stratton.

MacHose, M., & Peper, E. (1991). The effect of clothing on inhalation volume. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, 16(3), 261–265. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01000020

Marchenko, V., Ghali, M. G., & Rogers, R. F. (2015). The role of spinal GABAergic circuits in the control of phrenic nerve motor output. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 308(11), R916–R926. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00244.2014

Melissa. (2015). Why women fainted so much in the 19th century. May 20, 2015. Downloaded October 2, 2021. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/05/women-fainted-much-19th-century/

Peper, E., Gibney, K. H., & Holt, C. F. (2002). Make Health Happen—Training Yourself to Create Wellness. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Peper, E., Gilbert, C. D., Harvey, R. & Lin, I-M. (2015). Did you ask about abdominal surgery or injury? A learned disuse risk factor for breathing dysfunction. Biofeedback. 34(4), 173–179. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.06

Peper, E., Groshans, G. H., Johnston, J., Harvey, R., & Shaffer, F. (2016). Calibrating respiratory strain gauges: What the numbers mean for monitoring respiration. Biofeedback, 44(2), 101–105. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.2.06

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Cuellar, Y., & Membrila, C.(in press). Reduce anxiety. NeuroRegulation.

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Lin, I. M., Tylova, H., & Moss, D. (2007). Is there more to blood volume pulse than heart rate variability, respiratory sinus arrhythmia, and cardiorespiratory synchrony? Biofeedback, 35(2), 54–61. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259560204_Is_There_More_to_Blood_Volume_Pulse_Than_Heart_Rate_Variability_Respiratory_Sinus_Arrhythmia_and_Cardiorespiratory_Synchrony

Peper, E., Lin, I-M, & Harvey, R. (2017). Posture and mood: Implications and applications to therapy. Biofeedback, 35(2), 42–48. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.2.03

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. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-42.4.06

Peper, E., Mason, L., Harvey, R., Wolski, L, & Torres, J. (2020). Can acid reflux be reduced by breathing? Townsend Letters-The Examiner of Alternative Medicine, 445/446, 44–47. https://www.townsendletter.com/article/445-6-acid-reflux-reduced-by-breathing/

Peper, E., Mason, L., Huey, C. (2017). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback, 45(4), 83–87. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.4.04

Peper, E., Miceli, B., & Harvey, R. (2016). Educational model for self-healing: Eliminating a chronic migraine with electromyography, autogenic training, posture, and mindfulness. Biofeedback, 44(3), 130–137. https://www.aapb.org/files/publications/biofeedback/2016/biof-44-03-130-137.pdf

Peper, E., Shaffer, F., & Lin, I. M. (2010). Garbage in; Garbage out—Identify blood volume pulse (BVP) artifacts before analyzing and interpreting BVP, blood volume pulse amplitude, and heart rate/respiratory sinus arrhythmia data. Biofeedback, 38(1), 19–23. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-38.1.19

Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Owl Books ISBN: 978-0805073690

Shaffer, F., Combatalade, D., Peper, E., & Meehan, Z. M. (2016). A guide to cleaner electrodermal activity measurements. Biofeedback, 44( 2), 90–100. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.2.01

Smith, M. M., Saklofske, D. H., Stoeber, J., & Sherry, S. B. (2016). The big three perfectionism scale: A new measure of perfectionism. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 34(7), 670–687. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734282916651539

Sowder, E., Gevirtz, R., Shapiro, W., & Ebert, C. (2010). Restoration of vagal tone: a possible mechanism for functional abdominal pain. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback35(3), 199–206. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-010-9128-8

Stern, M. J., Guiles, R. A., & Gevirtz, R. (2014). HRV biofeedback for pediatric irritable bowel syndrome and functional abdominal pain: A clinical replication series. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 39(3), 287–291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-014-9261-x

Stonehewer, L. (2009). Dysfunctional breathing for women’s health physiotherapists. Journal of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Women’s Health, 104, 38–40. https://pogp.csp.org.uk/system/files/stonehewer_hr.pdf

Streeter, C. C., Gerbarg, P. L., Saper, R. B., Ciraulo, D. A., & Brown, R. P. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical hypotheses, 78(5), 571–579. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.021

Sun, X., Shang, W., Wang, Z., Liu, X., Fang, X., & Ke, M. (2016). Short-term and long-term effect of diaphragm biofeedback training in gastroesophageal reflux disease: An open-label, pilot, randomized trial. Diseases of the Esophagus, 29(7), 829–836. https://doi.org/10.1111/dote.12390

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Meditation Myths and Tips for Practice

Mindfulness-based strategies are drawn from ancient Buddhist practices and have found acceptance as one of the major behavioral medicine techniques of today (Hilton et al, 2016; Khazan, 2013).  Throughout this blog the term mindfulness will refer broadly to a mental state of paying total attention to the present moment, with a non-judgmental awareness of inner and outer experiences (Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004; Kabat-Zinn, 1994). This approach is the common core for many stress management approaches (Peper, Harvey, & Lin, 2019).

Background

Transcendental meditation (TM), a form of concentrative meditation involving repetition of a sacred word or phrase known as a mantra, was a popular meditation technique introduced in the United States from India and participants reported improvement of mental and physical health (Wallace, 1970; Paul-Labrador et al, 2006; Rainforth et al, 2007; Hawkins, 2003). To make TM more acceptable for the western audience, Herbert Benson, MD, adapted and simplified the TM process and then labelled a core element, the ‘relaxation response’ (Benson, Beary, & Carol, 1974; Benson & Clipper, 1992).  Instead of giving people a secret mantra and part of a spiritual tradition, he recommend using the word “one”  as the mantra. Since that time numerous studies have demonstrated that when patients practice the relaxation response, many clinical symptoms were reduced.

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced a manual for a standardized Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (Kabat-Zinn, 1994; Kabat-Zin, 2003). The eight-week program combined mindfulness as a form of insight meditation with mindful yogic movement exercises designed to focus awareness on body sensations, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Mindfulness based programs have become a predominant approach used in behavioral medicine.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) combine mindfulness meditation training with cognitive therapy and is a useful approach to reduce  a variety of mental and physical conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, addiction,  disordered eating, chronic pain, sleep disturbances, and high blood pressure (Andersen et al., 2013; Carlson, Speca, Patel, & Goodey, 2003; Fjorback, Arendt, Ørnbøl, Fink, & Walach, 2011; Greeson, & Eisenlohr-Moul, 2014; Hoffman et al., 2012; Marchand, 2012; Baer, 2015; Demarzo et al, 2015; Khoury et al, 2013; Khoury et al, 2015; Teasdale, Segal, & Williams, 1995; Kabat-Zinn, 1994; Kabat-Zin, 2003; Zimmermann, Burrell, , & Jordan, 2018). Although in most cases, MBSR is helpful, in some cases meditation can evoke negative physical and/or psychological outcomes and inhibit prosocial behavior (Kreplin et al, 2018; Lindahl et al, 2017).  Based on this encouraging research, many people are learning to meditate on their own using meditation apps. However, there are many questions that can arise for people new to meditation – such as what is meditation, how do I do it, what are the challenges, and how is it helpful? Some people also develop misconceptions about what meditation is and can become discouraged.

Watch the outstanding presentation by Professor Jennifer Daubenmier presented for the Holistic Health Lecture Series, in which she discusses meditation myths and pragmatic tips for practice.

References

Andersen, S. R., Würtzen, H., Steding-Jessen, M., Christensen, J., Andersen, K. K., Flyger, H., … & Dalton, S. O. (2013). Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction on sleep quality: Results of a randomized trial among Danish breast cancer patients. Acta Oncologica, 52(2), 336-344. https://doi.org/10.3109/0284186X.2012.745948

Baer, R., Smith, G., & Allen, K. (2004). Assessment of mindfulness by self-report: The Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills. Assessment, 11, 191–206. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191104268029

Benson, H.,  Beary, J. F.,  & Carol, M. P. (1974).The Relaxation Response. Psychiatry, 37(1), 37-46.   https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/upsy20

Benson, H. & Clipper, M.Z. (1992). The Relaxation Response. Wings Books.

Carlson, L. E., Speca, M., Patel, K. D., & Goodey, E. (2003). Mindfulness‐based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress, and immune parameters in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 571-581. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.psy.0000074003.35911.41

Demarzo, M. M., Montero-Marin, J., Cuijpers, P., Zabaleta-del-Olmo, E., Mahtani, K. R., Vellinga, A., Vicens, C., López-del-Hoyo, Y., & García-Campayo, J. (2015). The Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Primary Care: A Meta-Analytic Review. Annals of family medicine13(6), 573–582. https://doi.org/10.1370/afm.1863

Fjorback, L. O., Arendt, M., Ørnbøl, E., Fink, P., & Walach, H. (2011). Mindfulness‐Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness‐Based Cognitive Therapy–A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 124(2), 102-119.  https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0447.2011.01704.x

Greeson, J., & Eisenlohr-Moul, T. (2014). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic pain. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches: Clinician’s Guide to Evidence Base and Applications, 269-292. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. https://www.academia.edu/8092878/Mindfulness_Based_Stress_Reduction_for_Chronic_Pain

Hawkins, M. A. (2003). Effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation program in criminal rehabilitation and substance abuse recovery, Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 36(1-4), 47-65. https://doi.org/10.1300/J076v36n01_03

Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B. A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., …Maglione, M. A. (2016). Mindfulness meditation for chronic pain: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 51(2), 199-213. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2

Hoffman, C. J., Ersser, S. J., Hopkinson, J. B., Nicholls, P. G., Harrington, J. E., & Thomas, P. W. (2012). Effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction in mood, breast-and endocrine-related quality of life, and well-being in stage 0 to III breast cancer: A randomized, controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 30(12), 1335-1342. https://doi.org/10.1200/JCO.2010.34.0331

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 8, 73–107. https://www.proquest.com/openview/fef538e3ed2210c1201ef2a946faed43/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=29080

Khazan, I. Z. (2013). The clinical handbook of biofeedback: A step-by-step guide for training and practice with mindfulness. John Wiley & Sons.

Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., Chapleau, M., Paquin, K., & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763-771. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.005

Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S. E., & Fournier, C. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 78(6), 519-528. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2015.03.009

Kreplin, U., Farias, M., & Brazil, I. A. (2018). The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sci Rep, 8, 2403. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-20299-z

Lindahl, J. R., Fisher, N. E., Cooper, D. J., Rosen, R. K,  & Britton, W. B. (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoSONE, 12(5): e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239

Marchand, W. R. (2012). Mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and Zen meditation for depression, anxiety, pain, and psychological distress. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 18(4), 233-252. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.pra.0000416014.53215.86

Paul-Labrador, M., Polk, D., Dwyer, J.H. et al. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of Transcendental Meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archive of Internal Medicine, 166(11), 1218-1224. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.166.11.1218

Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Lin, I-M. (2019).  Mindfulness training has themes common to other technique. Biofeedback. 47(3), 50-57.  https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-47.3.02

Rainforth, M.V., Schneider, R.H., Nidich, S.I., Gaylord-King, C., Salerno, J.W., & Anderson, J.W. (2007). Stress reduction programs in patients with elevated blood pressure: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Current Hypertension Reports, 9(6), 520–528. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11906-007-0094-3

Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z., & Williams, J. M. (1995). How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness) training help? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33, 25–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(94)e0011-7

Wallace, K.W. (1970). Physiological Effects of Transcendental Meditation. Science, 167 (3926), 1751-1754.  https://doi.org/10.1126/science.167.3926.1


Freedom of movement with the Alexander Technique

Erik Peper and Elyse Shafarman

After taking Alexander Technique lessons I felt lighter and stood taller and I have learned how to direct myself differently.  I am much more aware of my body, so that while I am working at the computer, I notice when I am slouching and contracting. Even better, I know what to do so that I have no pain at the end of the day. It’s as though I’ve learned to allow my body to move freely.

The Alexander Technique is one of the somatic techniques that optimize health and performance (Murphy, 1993). Many people report that after taking Alexander lessons, many organic and functional disorders disappear. Others report that their music or dance performances improve. The Alexander Technique has been shown to improve back pain, neck pain, knee pain walking gait, and balance (Alexander technique, 2022; Hamel, et al, 2016; MacPherson et al., 2015; Preece, et al., 2016). Benefits are not just  physical. Studying the technique decreases performance anxiety in musicians and reduces depression associated with Parkinson’s disease (Klein, et al, 2014; Stallibrass et al., 2002).

Background

The Alexander Technique was developed in the late 19th century by the Australian actor, Frederick Matthias Alexander (Alexander, 2001).  It is an educational method that teaches students to align, relax and free themselves from limiting tension habits (Alexander, 2001; Alexander technique, 2022).  F.M Alexander developed this technique to resolve his own problem of becoming hoarse and losing his voice when speaking on stage.

Initially he went to doctors for treatment but nothing worked except rest. After resting, his voice was great again; however, it quickly became hoarse when speaking.  He recognized that it must be how he was using himself while speaking that caused the hoarseness.  He understood that “use” was not just a physical pattern, but a mental and emotional way of being. “Use” included beliefs, expectations and feelings. After working on himself, he developed the educational process known as the Alexander Technique that helps people improve the way they move, breathe and react to the situations of life.

The benefits of this approach has been documented in a large randomized controlled trial of one-on-one Alexander Technique lessons which showed that it significantly reduced chronic low back pain and the benefits persisted a year after treatment (Little, et al, 2008).  Back pain as well as shoulder and neck pain often is often related to stress and how we misuse ourselves.  When experiencing discomfort, we quickly tend to blame our physical structure and assume that the back pain is due to identifiable structural pathology identified by X-ray or MRI assessments. However, similar structural pathologies are often present in people who do not experience pain and the MRI findings correlate poorly with the experience of discomfort (Deyo & Weinstein, 2001; Svanbergsson et al., 2017). More likely, the causes and solutions involve how we use ourselves (e.g., how we stand, move, or respond to stress). A functional approach may include teaching awareness of the triggers that precede neck and back tension, skills to prevent the tensing of those muscles not needed for task performance,  resolving psychosocial stress and improving the ergonomic factors that contribute to working in a stressed position (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020). Conceptually, how we are use ourselves (thoughts, emotions, and body) affects and transforms our physical structure and then our physical structure constrains how we use ourselves.

Watch the video with Alexander Teacher, Elyse Shafarman, who describes the Alexander Technique and guides you through practices that you can use immediately to optimize your health while sitting and moving.

See also the following posts:

References

Alexander, F.M. (2001). The Use of the Self. London: Orion Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Use-Self-F-M-Alexander/dp/0752843915

Alexander technique. (2022). National Health Service. Retrieved 19 April, 2022/.  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alexander-technique/

Deyo, R.A. & Weinstein, J.N. (2001). Low back pain. N Engl J Med., 344(5),363-70. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200102013440508

Hamel, K.A., Ross, C., Schultz, B., O’Neill, M., & Anderson, D.I. (2016). Older adult Alexander Technique practitioners walk differently than healthy age-matched controls. J Body Mov Ther. 20(4), 751-760. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2016.04.009

Klein, S. D., Bayard, C., & Wolf, U. (2014). The Alexander Technique and musicians: a systematic review of controlled trials. BMC complementary and alternative medicine14, 414. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-14-414

Little, P.  Lewith, W G., Webley, F.,  Evans, M., …(2008). Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. BMJ, 337:a884. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a884

MacPherson, H., Tilbrook, H., Richmond, S., Woodman, J., Ballard, K., Atkin, K., Bland, M., et al. (2015). Alexander Technique Lessons or Acupuncture Sessions for Persons With Chronic Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med, 163(9), 653-62. https://doi.org/10.7326/M15-0667

Murphy, M. (1993). The Future of the Body. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee.

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Preece, S.J., Jones, R.K., Brown, C.A. et al.  (2016). Reductions in co-contraction following neuromuscular re-education in people with knee osteoarthritis. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 17372.  https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-016-1209-2

Stallibrass, C., Sissons, P., & Chalmers. C. (2002). Randomized controlled trial of the Alexander technique for idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. Clin Rehabil, 16(7), 695-708. https://doi.org/10.1191/0269215502cr544oa

Svanbergsson, G., Ingvarsson, T., & Arnardóttir RH. (2017). [MRI for diagnosis of low back pain: Usability, association with symptoms and influence on treatment]. Laeknabladid, 103(1):17-22. Icelandic. https://doi.org/10.17992/lbl.2017.01.116

Tuomilehto, J., Lindström, J., Eriksson, J.G., Valle, T.T., Hämäläinen, H., Ilanne-Parikka, P., Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi, S., Laakso, M., Louheranta, A., Rastas, M., et al. (2001). Prevention of type 2 diabetes mellitus by changes in lifestyle among subjects with impaired glucose tolerance. N. Engl. J. Med., 344, 1343–1350. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200105033441801

Uusitupa, Mm, Khan, T.A., Viguiliouk, E., Kahleova, H., Rivellese, A.A., Hermansen, K., Pfeiffer, A., Thanopoulou, A., Salas-Salvadó, J., Schwab, U., & Sievenpiper. J.L. (2019). Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes by Lifestyle Changes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 11(11)2611. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112611


A breath of fresh air: Breathing and posture to optimize health

Most people breathe 22,000 breaths per day. We tend to breathe more rapidly when stressed, anxious or in pain. While a slower diaphragmatic breathing supports recovery and regeneration. We usually become aware of our dysfunctional breathing when there are problems such as nasal congestion, allergies, asthma, emphysema, or breathlessness during exertion.  Optimal breathing is much more than the absence of symptoms and is influenced by posture. Dysfunctional posture and breathing are cofactors in illness. We often do not realize that posture and breathing affect our thoughts and emotions and that our thoughts and emotions affect our posture and breathing. Watch the video, A breath of fresh air: Breathing and posture to optimize health, that was recorded for the 2022 Virtual Ergonomics Summit.


Reduce anxiety

The purpose of this blog is to describe how a university class that incorporated structured self-experience practices reduced self-reported anxiety symptoms (Peper, Harvey, Cuellar, & Membrila, 2022). This approach is different from a clinical treatment approach as it focused on empowerment and mastery learning (Peper, Miceli, & Harvey, 2016). 

As a result of my practice, I felt my anxiety and my menstrual cramps decrease. — College senior

When I changed back to slower diaphragmatic breathin, I was more aware of my negative emotions and I was able to reduce the stress and anxiety I was feeling with the deep diaphragmatic breathing.– College junior

Background

More than half of college students now report anxiety (Coakley et al., 2021). In our recent survey during the first day of the spring semester class, 59% of the students reported feeling tired, dreading their day, being distracted, lacking mental clarity and had difficulty concentrating.

Before the COVID pandemic nearly one-third of students had or developed moderate or severe anxiety or depression while being at college (Adams et al., 2021. The pandemic accelerated a trend of increasing anxiety that was already occurring.  “The prevalence of major depressive disorder among graduate and professional students is two times higher in 2020 compared to 2019 and the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder is 1.5 times higher than in 2019” As reported by Chirikov et al (2020) from the UC Berkeley SERU Consortium Reports.

This increase in anxiety has both short and long term performance and health consequences. Severe anxiety reduces cognitive functioning and is a risk factor for early dementia (Bierman et al., 2005; Richmond-Rakerd et al, 2022). It also increases the risk for asthma, arthritis, back/neck problems, chronic headache, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, pain, obesity and ulcer (Bhattacharya et al., 2014; Kang et al, 2017).

The most commonly used treatment for anxiety are pharmaceutical and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) (Kaczkurkin & Foa, 2015).  The anti-anxiety drugs are usually benzodiazepines (e.g., alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan).  Although these drugs they may reduce anxiety, they have numerous side effects such as drowsiness, irritability, dizziness, memory and attention problems, and physical dependence (Shri, 2012; Crane, 2013).

Cognitive behavior therapy techniques based upon the assumption that anxiety is primarily a disorder in thinking which then causes the symptoms and behaviors associated with anxiety. Thus, the primary treatment intervention focuses on changing thoughts.

Given the significant increase in anxiety and the potential long term negative health risks, there is need to provide educational strategies to empower students to prevent and reduce their anxiety.  A holistic approach is one that assumes that body and mind are one and that soma/body, emotions and thoughts interchangeably affect the development of anxiety. Initially in our research, Peper, Lin, Harvey & Perez (2017) reported that it was easier to access hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories in a slouched position than an upright position and it was easier to access empowering positive memories in an upright position than a slouched position. Our research on transforming hopeless, helpless, depressive thought to empowering thoughts, Peper, Harvey & Hamiel (2019) found that it was much more effective if the person first shifts to an upright posture, then begins slow diaphragmatic breathing and finally reframes their negative to empowering/positive thoughts. Participants were able to reframe stressful memories much more easily when in an upright posture compared to a slouched posture and reported a significant reduction in negative thoughts, anxiety (they also reported a significant decrease in negative thoughts, anxiety and tension as compared to those attempting to just change their thoughts).

The strategies to reduce anxiety focus on breathing and posture change. At the same time there are many other factors that may contribute the onset or maintenance of anxiety such as social isolation, economic insecurity, etc. In addition, low glucose levels can increase irritability and may lower the threshold of experiencing anxiety or impulsive behavior (Barr, Peper, & Swatzyna, 2019; Brad et al, 2014). This is often labeled as being “hangry” (MacCormack & Lindquist, 2019). Thus, by changing a high glycemic diet to a low glycemic diet may reduce the somatic discomfort (which can be interpreted as anxiety) triggered by low glucose levels.  In addition, people are also sitting more and more in front of screens.  In this position, they tend to breathe quicker and more shallowly in their chest. 

Shallow rapid breathing tends to reduce pCO2 and contributes to subclinical hyperventilation which could be experienced as anxiety (Lum, 1981; Wilhelm et al., 2001; Du Pasquier et al, 2020).  Experimentally, the feeling of anxiety can rapidly be evoked by instructing a person to sequentially exhale about 70 % of the inhaled air continuously for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, most participants reported a significant increase in anxiety (Peper & MacHose, 1993).  Thus, the combination of sitting, shallow breathing and increased stress from the pandemic are all cofactors that may contribute to the self-reported increase in anxiety.

To reduce anxiety and discomfort, McGrady and Moss (2013) suggested that self-regulation and stress management approaches be offered as the initial treatment/teaching strategy in health care instead of medication. One of the useful approaches to reduce sympathetic arousal and optimize health is breathing awareness and retraining (Gilbert, 2003).  

Stress management as part of a university holistic health class

Every semester since 1976, up to 180 undergraduates have enrolled in a three-unit Holistic Health class on stress management and self-healing (Klein & Peper, 2013).  Students in the class are assigned self-healing projects using techniques that focus on awareness of stress, dynamic regeneration, stress reduction imagery for healing, and other behavioral change techniques adapted from the book, Make Health Happen (Peper, Gibney & Holt, 2002).

82% of students self-reported that they were ‘mostly successful’ in achieving their self-healing goals. Students have consistently reported achieving positive benefits such as increasing physical fitness, changing diets, reducing depression, anxiety, and pain, eliminating eczema, and even reducing substance abuse (Peper et al., 2003; Bier et al., 2005; Peper et al., 2014).

This assessment reports how students’ anxiety decreased after five weeks of daily practice. The students filled out an anonymous survey in which they rated the change in their discomfort after practicing effortless diaphragmatic breathing. More than 70% of the students reported a decrease in anxiety. In addition, they reported decreases in symptoms of stress, neck and shoulder pain as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Self-report of decrease in symptoms after practice diaphragmatic breathing for a week.

In comparing the self-reported responses of the students in the holistic health class to those of the control group (N=12), the students in the holistic health class reported a significant decrease in symptoms since the beginning of the semester as compared to the control group as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Change in self-reported symptoms after 6 weeks of practice the integrated holistic health skills as compared to the control group who did not practice these skills.

Changes in symptoms Most students also reported an increase in mental clarity and concentration that improved their study habits. As one student noted: Now that I breathe properly, I have less mental fog and feel less overwhelmed and more relaxed. My shoulders don’t feel tense, and my muscles are not as achy at the end of the day.

The teaching components for the first five weeks included a focus on the psychobiology of stress, the role of posture, and psychophysiology of respiration. The class included didactic presentations and daily self-practice

Lecture content

  1. Diadactic presentation on the physiology of stress and how posture impacts health.
  2. Self-observation of stress reactions; energy drain/energy gain and learning dynamic relaxation.
  3. Short experiential practices so that the student can experience how slouched posture allows easier access to helpless, hopeless, powerless and defeated memories.
  4. Short experiential breathing practices to show how breathing holding occurs and how 70% exhalation within 30 seconds increases anxiety.
  5. Didactic presentation on the physiology of breathing and how a constricted waist tends to have the person breathe high in their chest (the cause of neurasthemia) and how the fight/flight response triggers chest breathing, breath holding and/or shallow breathing.
  6. Explanation and practice of diaphragmatic breathing.

Daily self-practice

Students were assigned weekly daily self-practices which included both skill mastery by practicing for 20 minutes as well and implementing the skill during their daily life.  They then recorded their experiences after the practice. At the end of the week, they reviewed their own log of week and summarized their observations (benefits, difficulties) and then met in small groups to discuss their experiences and extract common themes. These daily practices consisted of:

  1. Awareness of stress.  Monitoring how they reacted to daily stressor
  2. Practicing dynamic relaxation. Students practiced for 20 minutes a modified progressive relaxation exercise and observed and inhibit bracing pattern
  3. Changing energy drain and energy gains. Students observed what events reduced or increased their subjective energy and implemented changes in their behavior to decrease events that reduced their energy and increased behaviors that increase their enery
  4. Creating a memory of wholeness practice
  5. Practicing effortless breathing. Students practiced slowly diaphragmatic abdominal breathing for 20 minutes per day and each time they become aware of dysfunctional breathing (breath holding, shallow chest breathing, gasping) during the day, they would shift to slower diaphragmatic breathing.

Discussion

Almost all students were surprised how beneficial these practices were to reduce their anxiety and symptoms. Generally, the more the students would interrupt their personal stress responses during the day by shifting to diaphragmatic breathing the more did they experience success. We hypothesize that some of the following factors contributed to the students’ improvement.

  • Learning through self-mastery as an education approach versus clinical treatment.
  • Generalizing the skills into daily life and activities. Practicing the skills during the day in which the cue of a stress reaction triggered the person to breathe slowly. The breathing would reduce the sympathetic activation.
  • Interrupting escalating sympathetic arousal. Responding with an intervention reduced the sense of being overwhelmed and unable to cope by the participant by taking charge and performing an active task.
  • Redirecting attention and thoughts away from the anxiety triggers to a positive task.
  • Increasing heart rate variability. Through slow breathing heart rate variability increased which enhanced sympathetic parasympathetic balance.
  • Reducing subclinical hyperventilation by breathing slower and thereby increasing pC02.
  • Increasing social support by meeting in small groups.  The class discussion group normalized the anxiety experiences.
  • Providing hope. The class lectures, assigned readings and videos provide hope; since,  it included reports how other students had reversed their chronic  disorders such as irritable bowel disease, acid reflux, psoriasis with behavioral interventions.

Although the study lacked a control group and is only based upon self-report, it offers an economical non-pharmaceutical approach to reduce anxiety. These stress management strategies may not resolve anxiety for everyone. Nevertheless, we recommend that schools implement this approach as the first education intervention to improve health in which students are taught about stress management, learn and practice relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing and then practice these skills during the day  whenever they experience stress or dysfunctional breathing.

I noticed that breathing helped tremendously with my anxiety. I was able to feel okay without having that dreadful feeling stay in my chest and I felt it escape in my exhales. I also felt that I was able to breathe deeper and relax better altogether. It was therapeutic, I felt more present, aware, and energized.

See the following blogs for detailed breathing instructions

References

Adams. K.L., Saunders KE, Keown-Stoneman CDG, et al. (2021). Mental health trajectories in undergraduate students over the first year of university: a longitudinal cohort study. BMJ Open 2021; 11:e047393. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2020-047393

Barr, E. A., Peper, E. & Swatzyna, R.J. (2019).  Slouched Posture, Sleep Deprivation, and Mood Disorders: Interconnection and Modulation by Theta Brain Waves. Neuroregulation, 6(4), 181–189 https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.6.41.181

Bhattacharya, R., Shen, C. & Sambamoorthi, U. (2014). Excess risk of chronic physical conditions associated with depression and anxiety. BMC Psychiatry 14, 10 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-14-10

Bier, M., Peper, E., & Burke, A. (2005). Integrated stress management with ‘Make Health Happen: Measuring the impact through a 5-month follow-up. Poster presentation at the 36th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Abstract published in: Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 30(4), 400. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/2005-aapb-make-health-happen-bier-peper-burke-gibney3-12-05-rev.pdf

Bierman, E.J.M., Comijs, H.C. , Jonker, C. & Beekman, A.T.F.  (2005). Effects of Anxiety Versus Depression on Cognition in Later Life. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,13(8),  686-693, https://doi.org/10.1097/00019442-200508000-00007.

Brad, J., Bushman, C., DeWall, N., Pond, R.S., &. Hanus, M.D. (2014).. Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couplesPNAS, April 14, 2014.  https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1400619111

Chirikov, I., Soria, K. M, Horgos, B., & Jones-White, D. (2020). Undergraduate and Graduate Students’ Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic. UC Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/80k5d5hw

Coakley, K.E., Le, H., Silva, S.R. et al. Anxiety is associated with appetitive traits in university students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nutr J 20, 45 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-021-00701-9

Crane,E.H. (2013).Highlights of the 2011 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) Findings on Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits. 2013 Feb 22. In: The CBHSQ Report. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2013-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK384680/

Du Pasquier, D., Fellrath, J.M., & Sauty, A. (2020). Hyperventilation syndrome and dysfunctional breathing: update. Revue Medicale Suisse, 16(698), 1243-1249. https://europepmc.org/article/med/32558453

Gilbert C. Clinical Applications of Breathing Regulation: Beyond Anxiety Management. Behavior Modification. 2003;27(5):692-709. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445503256322

Kaczkurkin, A.N. & Foa, E.B. (2015). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 17(3):337-46.  https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.3/akaczkurkin

Kang, H. J., Bae, K. Y., Kim, S. W., Shin, H. Y., Shin, I. S., Yoon, J. S., & Kim, J. M. (2017). Impact of Anxiety and Depression on Physical Health Condition and Disability in an Elderly Korean Population. Psychiatry investigation14(3), 240–248. https://doi.org/10.4306/pi.2017.14.3.240

Klein, A. & Peper, W. (2013). There is Hope: Autogenic Biofeedback Training for the Treatment of Psoriasis. Biofeedback, 41(4), 194–201. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-41.4.01

Lum, L. C. (1981). Hyperventilation and anxiety state. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine74(1), 1-4. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/014107688107400101

MacCormack, J. K., & Lindquist, K. A. (2019). Feeling hangry? When hunger is conceptualized as emotion. Emotion, 19(2), 301–319. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000422

McGrady, A. & Moss, D. (2013). Pathways to illness, pathways to health. New York: Springer. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-4419-1379-1

Peper, E., Gibney, K.H., & Holt, C.F. (2002). Make health happen: Training yourself to create wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. https://he.kendallhunt.com/make-health-happen

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Cuellar, Y., & Membrila, C. (2022). Reduce anxiety. NeuroRegulation, 9(2), 91–97. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.9.2.91  https://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/22815/14575

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   https://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/19455/13261

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When you have pain-Listen to this first!

Pain is so different for each person. It can range from mildly distracting to totally debilitating. It can be the result from a medical procedure (post- surgical pain), a traumatic injury, disease, trauma or unknown causes.  It is challenging to know what to do to reduce suffering and improve health and functioning.  Should I take narcotics, have surgery, see a pain psychologist, have acupuncture, receive physical therapy, use biofeedback, change my diet, or get a massage? Should I exercise or rest? Should I follow my doctor’s recommendations?

Before you do anything, first listen to this podcast by pain psychologist, Rachel Zoffness, PhD. In this podcast she will explain what pain is; how it works; and how thoughts, emotions, and sensations are always interconnected. You will also learn the fundamentals of treating chronic pain and helping patients living with it. As one of my close friends stated, “I only wished I could have listened to this before, it would have saved years of suffering.” The podcast is Ologies with Alie Ward and the episode is Dolorology. The link for the episode is:

https://www.alieward.com/ologies/dolorology

Rachel Zoffness, PhD, a pain psychologist, Visiting Professor at Stanford, and Assistant Clinical Professor at the UCSF School of Medicine. She serves on the Board of Directors of the U.S. Association for the Study of Pain, and the Society of Pediatric Pain Medicine. She is the author of The Pain Management Workbook and The Chronic Pain and Illness Workbook for Teens. She is a 2021 Mayday Fellow and consults on the development of integrative pain programs around the world.