I quickly gasped twice and a sharp pain radiated up my head and into my eye. I shifted to slow breathing and it faded away.
I felt anxious and became aware of my heart palpitations at the end of practicing 70% exhalation for 30 seconds. I was very surprised how quickly my anxiety was triggered when I changed my breathing pattern.
Breathing is the body/mind/emotion/spirit interface which is reflected in our language with phrases such as a sigh of relief, all choked up, breathless, full of hot air, waiting with bated breath, inspired or expired, all puffed up, breathing room, or it takes my breath away. The colloquial phrases reflect that breathing is more than gas exchange and may have the following effects.
- Changes the lymph and venous blood return from the abdomen (Piller, Leduc, & Ryan, 2006). The downward movement of the diaphragm with the corresponding expansion of the abdomen occurs during inhalation as well as slight relaxation of the pelvic floor. The constriction of the abdomen and slight tightening of the pelvic floor causing the diaphragm to go upward and allows exhalation. This dynamic movement increases and decreases internal abdominal and thoracic pressures and acts a pump to facilitate the venous and lymph return from the abdomen. In many people this dynamic pumping action is reduced because the abdomen does not expand during inhalation as it is constricted by tight clothing (designer jean syndrome), holding the abdomen in to maintain a slim self-image, tightening the abdomen in response to fear, or the result of learned disuse to reduce pain from abdominal surgery, gastrointestinal disorders, or abdominal insults (Peper et al, 2015).
- Increases spinal disk movement. Effortless diaphragmatic breathing is a whole body process and associated with improved functional movement (Bradley, & Esformes, 2014). The spine slightly flexes when we exhale and extends when we inhale which allows dynamic disk movement unless we sit in a chair.
- Communicates our emotional state as our breathing patterns reflect our emotional state. When we are anxious or fearful the breath usually quickens and becomes shallow while when we relax the breath slows and the movement is more in the abdomen (Homma, & Masoka, 2008).
- Evokes, maintains, inhibits symptoms or promotes healing. Breathing changes our physiology, thoughts and emotions. When breathing slowly to about 6 breaths a minute, it may enhance heart rate variability and thereby increase sympathetic and parasympathetic balance (Lehrer & Gevirtz, 2014; Moss & Shaffer, 2017).
Can breathing trigger symptoms?
A fifty-five year old woman asked for suggestions what she could do to prevent the occurrence of episodic prodrome and aura symptoms of visual disturbances and problems in concentration that would signal the onset of a migraine. In the past, she had learned to control her migraines with biofeedback; however, she now experienced these prodromal sensation more and more frequently without experiencing the migraine. As she was talking, I observed that she was slightly gasping before speaking with shallow rapid breathing in her chest.
To explore whether breathing pattern may contribute to evoke, maintain or amplify symptoms, the following two behavioral breathing challenges can suggest whether breathing is a factor: Rapid fearful gasping or 70% exhalation.
Behavioral breathing challenge: Rapid fearful gasping
Take a rapid fearful gasp when inhaling as if your feel scared or fearful. Let the air really quickly come in and repeat two or three times as described in the video. Then describe what you experienced.
If you became aware of the onset of a symptom or that the symptom intensified, then your dysfunctional breathing patterns (e.g., gasping, breath holding or shallow chest breathing) may contribute to development or maintenance of these symptoms. For many people when they gasp–a big rapid inhalation as if they are terrified–it may evoke their specific symptom such as a pain sensation in the back of the eye, slight pain in the neck, blanking out, not being able to think clearly, tightness and stiffness in their back, or even an increase in achiness in their joints (Peper et al, 2016).
To reduce or avoid triggering the symptom, breathe diaphragmatically without effort; namely each time you gasp, hold your breath or breathe shallowly, shift to effortless diaphragmatic breathing.
The above case of the woman with the prodromal migraine symptoms, she experienced visual disturbances and fuzziness in her head after the gasping. This experience allowed her to realize that her breathing style could be a contributing in triggering her symptoms. When she then practiced slow diaphragmatic breathing for a few breaths her symptoms disappeared. Hopefully, if she replaces gasping and shallow breathing with effortless diaphragmatic breathing then there is a possibility that her symptoms may no longer occur.
Behavioral breathing challenge: 70% exhalation
While sitting, breathe normally for a minute. Now change your breathing pattern so that you exhale only 70% or your previous inhaled air. Each time you exhale, exhale only 70% of the inhaled volume. If you need to stop, just stop, and then return to this breathing pattern again by exhaling only 70 percent of the inhaled volume of air. After 30 seconds, let go and breathe normally as guided by the video clip. Observe what happened?
In our research study with 35 volunteers, almost all participants experienced an increase in arousal and symptoms such as lightheadedness, dizziness, anxiety, breathless, neck and shoulder tension after 30 seconds of incomplete exhalation as shown in Figure 1 and Table 1 (Peper and MacHose, 1993).
Figure 1. Increase in anxiety evoked by 70% exhalation.
Table 1. Symptoms experienced after exhalation 70%.
Although these symptoms may be similar to those evoked by hyperventilation and overbreathing, they are probably not caused by the reduction of end-tidal carbon dioxide (CO2). The apparent decrease in end-tidal PCO2 is cause by the room air mixing with the exhaled air and not a measure of end-tidal CO2 (Peper and Tibbets, 1992). Most likely the symptoms are associated by the shallow breathing that occurs when we were scared or terrified.
People who have a history of anxiety, panic, nervousness and tension as compared to those who report low anxiety tend to report more symptoms when exhaling 70% of inhaled air for 30 seconds. If this practice evoked symptoms, then changing the breathing patterns to slower diaphragmatic breathing may be a useful self-regulation strategy to optimize health.
These two behavior breathing challenges are useful demonstrations for students and clients that breathing patterns can influence symptoms. By experiencing ON and OFF control over their symptoms with breathing, the person now knows that breathing can affect their health and well being.
Blogs that that offer instructions to learn effortless diaphragmatic breathing
Peper, E., Gilbert, C.D., Harvey, R. & Lin, I-M. (2015). Did you ask about abdominal surgery or injury? A learned disuse risk factor for breathing dysfunction. Biofeedback. 34(4), 173-179. DOI: 10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.06
Peper, E. & Tibbetts, V. (1992). The effect of 70% exhalation and thoracic breathing upon end-tidal C02. Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Wheat Ridge, CO: AAPB, 126-129. Abstract in: Biofeedback and Self-Regulation. 17(4), 333-334.
“I have had headaches for six years, at first occurring almost every day. When I got put on an antidepressant, they slowed to about 3 times a week (sometimes more) and continued this way until I learned relaxation techniques. I am 20 years old and now headache free. Everyone should have this educational opportunity to heal themselves.” -Melinda, a 20 year old student
Health and wellness is a basic right for all people. When students learn stress management skills which include awareness of stress, progressive muscle relaxation, Autogenic phrases, slower breathing, posture change, transforming internal language, self-healing imagery, the role of diet, exercise embedded within an evolutionary perspective as part of a college class their health often improves. When students systematically applied these self-awareness techniques to address a self-selected illness or health behavior (e.g., eczema, diet, exercise, insomnia, or migraine headaches), 80% reported significant improvement in their health during that semester (Peper et al., 2014b; Tseng, et al., 2016). The semester long program is based upon the practices described in the book, Make Health Happen, (Peper, Gibney, & Holt, 2002).
The benefits often last beyond the semester. Numerous students reported remarkable outcomes at follow-up many months after the class had ended because they had mastered the self-regulation skills and continued to implement these skills into their daily lives. The educational model utilized in holistic health courses is often different from the clinical/treatment model.
Educational approach: I am a student and I have an illness (most of me is healthy and only part of me is sick).
Clinical treatment approach: I am a patient and I am sick (all of me is sick)
Some of the concepts underlying the differences between the educational and the clinical approach are shown in Table 1.
|Educational approach||Clinic/treatment approach|
|Focuses on growth and learning||Focuses on remediation|
|Focuses on what is right||Focuses on what is wrong|
|Focuses on what people can do for themselves||Focuses on how the therapist can help patients|
|Assumes students as being competent||Implies patients are damaged and incompetent|
|Students defined as being competent to master the skills||Patients defined as requiring others to help them|
|Encourages active participation in the healing process||Assumes passive participation in the healing process|
|Students keep logs and write integrative and reflective papers, which encourage insight and awareness||Patients usually do not keep logs nor are asked to reflect at the end of treatment to see which factors contributed to success|
|Students meet in small groups, develop social support and perspective||Patients meet only with practitioners and stay isolated|
|Students experience an increased sense of mastery and empowerment||Patients experience no change or possibly a decrease in sense of mastery|
|Students develop skills and become equal or better than the instructor||Patients are healed, but therapist is always seen as more competent than patient|
|Students can become colleagues and friends with their teachers||Patients cannot become friends of the therapist and thus are always distanced|
Table 1. Comparison of an educational versus clinical/treatment approach
The educational approach focuses on mastering skills and empowerment. As part of the course work, students become more mindful of their health behavior patterns and gradually better able to transform their previously covert harm promoting patterns. This educational approach is illustrated in a case report which describes how a student reduced her chronic migraines.
Case Example: Elimination of Chronic Migraines
Melinda, a 20-year-old female student, experienced four to five chronic migraines per week since age 14. A neurologist had prescribed several medications including Imitrex (used to treat migraines) and Topamax (used to prevent seizures as well as migraine headaches), although they were ineffective in treating her migraines. Nortriptyline (a tricyclic antidepressant) and Excedrin Migraine (which contains caffeine, aspirin, and acetaminophen) reduced the frequency of symptoms to three times per week.
She was enrolled in a university biofeedback class that focused on learning self-regulation and biofeedback skills. All these students were taught the fundamentals of biofeedback and practiced Autogenic Training (AT) every day during the semester (Luthe, 1979; Luthe & Schultz, 1969; Peper & Williams, 1980).
In the class, students practiced with surface electromyography (SEMG) feedback to identify the presence of shoulder muscle overexertion (dysponesis), as well as awareness of minimum muscle tension. Additional practices included hand warming, awareness of thoracic and diaphragmatic breathing, and other biofeedback or somatic awareness approaches. In parallel with awareness of physical sensations, students practiced behavioral awareness such as alternating between a slouching body posture (associated with feeling self-critical and powerless) and an upright body posture (associated with feeling powerful and in control). Psychological awareness was focused on transforming negative thoughts and self-judgments to positive empowering thoughts (Harvey and Peper, 2011; Peper et al., 2014a; Peper et al, 2015). Taken together, students systematically increased awareness of physical, behavioral, and psychological aspects of their reactions to stress.
The major determinant for success is to generalize training at school, home and at work. Each time Melinda felt her shoulders tightening, she learned to relax and release the tension in her shoulders, practiced Autogenic Training with the phrase “my neck and shoulders are heavy.” In addition, whenever she felt her body beginning to slouch or noticed a negative self-critical thought arising in her mind, she shifted her body to an upright empowered posture, and substituted positive thoughts to reduce her cortisol level and increase access to positive thoughts (Carney & Cuddy, 2010; Cuddy, 2012; Tsai, et al., 2016). Postural feedback was also informally given by Melinda’s instructor. Every time the instructor noticed her slouching in class or the hallway, he visually changed his own posture to remind her to be erect.
Melinda’s headaches reduced from between three and five per week before enrolling in the class to zero following the course, as shown in Figure 2. She has learned to shift her posture from slouching to upright and relaxed. In addition, she reported feeling empowered, mentally clear, and her acne cleared up. All medications were eliminated. At a two year follow-up, she reported that since she took the class, she had only few headaches which were triggered by excessive stress.
Figure 2. Frequency of migraine and the implementation of self-practices.
The major factors that contributed to success were:
- Becoming aware of muscle tension through the SEMG feedback. Melinda realized that she had tension when she thought she was relaxed.
- Keeping detailed logs and developing a third person perspective by analyzing her own data and writing a report. A process that encouraged acceptance of self, thereby becoming less judgmental.
- Acquiring a new belief that she could learn to overcome her headaches, facilitated by class lecture and verbal feedback from the instructor.
- Taking active control by becoming aware of the initial negative thoughts or sensations and interrupting the escalating chain of negative thoughts and sensations by shifting the attention to positive empowering thoughts and sensations–a process that integrated mindfulness, acceptance and action. Thus, transforming judgmental thoughts into accepting and positive thoughts.
- Becoming more aware throughout the day, at school and at home, of initial triggers related to body collapse and muscle tension, then changing her body posture and relaxing her shoulders. This awareness was initially developed because the instructor continuously gave feedback whenever she started to slouch in class or when he saw her slouching in the hallways.
- Practicing many, many times during the day. Namely, increasing her ongoing mindfulness of posture, neck, and shoulder tension, and of negative internal dialogue without judgment.
The benefits of this educational approach is captured by Melinda’s summary, “The combined Autogenic biofeedback awareness and skill with the changes in posture helped me remarkably. It improved my self-esteem, empowerment, reduced my stress, and even improved the quality of my skin. It proves the concept that health is a whole system between mind, body, and spirit. When I listen carefully and act on it, my overall well-being is exceptionally improved.”
Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.
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
Harvey, E. & Peper, E. (2011). I thought I was relaxed: The use of SEMG biofeedback for training awareness and control (pp. 144-159). In W. A. Edmonds, & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Case studies in applied psychophysiology: Neurofeedback and biofeedback treatments for advances in human performance. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Luthe, W. (1979). About the methods of autogenic therapy (pp. 167-186). In E. Peper, S. Ancoli, & M. Quinn, Mind/body integration. New York: Springer.
Luthe, W., & Schultz, J.H. (1969). Autogenic therapy (Vols. 1-6). New York, NY: Grune and Stratton.
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M., & Shaffer, F. (2014a). Making the unaware aware-Surface electromyography to unmask tension and teach awareness. Biofeedback. 42(1), 16-23.
Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make health happen: Training yourself to create wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt. ISBN-13: 978-0787293314
Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014b). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154-160.
Peper, E., Nemoto, S., Lin, I-M., & Harvey, R. (2015). Seeing is believing: Biofeedback a tool to enhance motivation for cognitive therapy. Biofeedback, 43(4), 168-172. doi: 10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.03
Peper, E. & Williams, E.A. (1980). Autogenic therapy (pp. 131-137). In: A. C. Hastings, J. Fadiman, & J. S. Gordon (Eds.). Health for the whole person. Boulder: Westview Press.
Tsai, H. Y., Peper, E., & Lin, I. M. (2016). EEG patterns under positive/negative body postures and emotion recall tasks. NeuroRegulation, 3(1), 23-27.
Tseng, C., Abili, R., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2016). Reducing acne-stress and an integrated self-healing approach. Poster presented at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Seattle WA, March 9-12, 2016.
 Adapted from: 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://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-educational-model-for-self-healing-biofeedback.pdf