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
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
- Diadactic presentation on the physiology of stress and how posture impacts health.
- Self-observation of stress reactions; energy drain/energy gain and learning dynamic relaxation.
- Short experiential practices so that the student can experience how slouched posture allows easier access to helpless, hopeless, powerless and defeated memories.
- Short experiential breathing practices to show how breathing holding occurs and how 70% exhalation within 30 seconds increases anxiety.
- 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.
- Explanation and practice of diaphragmatic breathing.
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:
- Awareness of stress. Monitoring how they reacted to daily stressor
- Practicing dynamic relaxation. Students practiced for 20 minutes a modified progressive relaxation exercise and observed and inhibit bracing pattern
- 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
- Creating a memory of wholeness practice
- 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.
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
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 couples. PNAS, 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 investigation, 14(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 Medicine, 74(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
Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.2.01
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., MacHose, M. (1993). Symptom prescription: Inducing anxiety by 70% exhalation. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation 18, 133–139). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00999790
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://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.3.03
Peper, E., Sato-Perry, K & Gibney, K. H. (2003). Achieving Health: A 14-Session Structured Stress Management Program—Eczema as a Case Illustration. 34rd Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Abstract in: Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 28(4), 308. Proceeding in: http://www.aapb.org/membersonly/articles/P39peper.pdf
Richmond-Rakerd, L.S., D’Souza, S, Milne, B.J, Caspi, A., & Moffitt, T.E. (2022). Longitudinal Associations of Mental Disorders with Dementia: 30-Year Analysis of 1.7 Million New Zealand Citizens. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online February 16, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.4377
Shri, R. (2012). Anxiety: Causes and Management. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 5(1), 100–118. Retrieved from https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/2205
Wilhelm, F.H., Gevirtz, R., & Roth, W.T. (2001). Respiratory dysregulation in anxiety, functional cardiac, and pain disorders. Assessment, phenomenology, and treatment. Behav Modif, 25(4), 513-45. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445501254003
In a world of turmoil, it is often challenging to think that tomorrow can be different and better. Yet, each day is an opportunity to accept whatever happened in the past and look forward to the unfolding present. So often, we anticipate that the future will be the same or worse especially if we feel depressed, suffer from ongoing pain, chronic illness, family or work stress, etc. At those moments, we forget that yesterday’s memories may contribute to how we experience and interpret the future. Most of us do not know what the future will bring, thus be open to new opportunities for growth and well-being. For the New Year, adapt a daily ritual that I learned from a remarkable healer Dora Kunz.
Each morning when you get out of bed, take a few slow deep breaths. Then think of someone who you feel loved by and makes you smile whether your grandmother, aunt or dog. Then when you get up and put your feet on the ground, say out loud, “Today is a new day- a new beginning.”
Watch the following two videos of people for whom the future appeared hopeless and yet had the courage to transcend their limitations and offer inspiration and joy.
Janine Shepherd: A broken body isn’t a broken person. Cross-country skier Janine Shepherd hoped for an Olympic medal — until she was hit by a truck during a training bike ride. She shares a powerful story about the human potential for recovery. Her message: you are not your body, and giving up old dreams can allow new ones to soar.
Ma Li and Zhai Xiaowei: Hand in Hand. This is a video of a broadcast that originally aired on China’s English-language CCTV channel 9 during a modern dance competition in Beijing, China in 2007. This very unique couple–she without an arm, he without a leg–was one of the finalists among 7000 competitors in the 4th CCTV national dance competition. It is the first time a handicapped couple had ever entered the competition. They won the silver medal and became an instant national hit. The young woman, in her 30’s, was a dancer who had trained since she was a little girl. Later in life, she lost her entire right arm in an automobile accident and fell into a state of depression for a few years. After rebounding, she decided to team with a young man who had lost his leg in a farming accident as a boy and who was completely untrained in dance. After a long and sometimes agonizing training regimen, this is the result. The dance is performed by Ma Li (馬麗) and Zhai Xiaowei (翟孝偉). The music “Holding Hands” is composed by San Bao and choreographed by Zhao Limin.
Breathing affects all aspects of your life. This invited keynote, Breathing and posture: Mind-body interventions to improve health, reduce pain and discomfort, was presented at the Caribbean Active Aging Congress, October 14, Oranjestad, Aruba. www.caacaruba.com
The presentation includes numerous practices that can be rapidly adapted into daily life to improve health and well-being.
Erik Peper, Lauren Mason and Cindy Huey
This blog was adapted and expanded from: Peper, E., Mason, L., & Huey, C. (2017). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback. 45(4), 83-87. DOI: 10.5298/1081-5937-45.4.04 https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/a-healing-ibs-published.pdf
After having constant abdominal pain, severe cramps, and losing 15 pounds from IBS, I found myself in the hospital bed where all the doctors could offer me was morphine to reduce the pain. I searched on my smart phone for other options. I saw that abdominal breathing could help. I put my hands on my stomach and tried to expand it while I inhaled. All that happened was that my chest expanded and my stomach did not move. I practiced and practiced and finally, I could breathe lower. Within a few hours, my pain was reduced. I continued breathing this way many times. Now, two years later, I no longer have IBS and have regained 20 pounds.
– 21-year old woman who previously had severe IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome(IBS) affects between 7% to 21% of the general population and is a chronic condition. The symptoms usually include abdominal cramping, discomfort or pain, bloating, loose or frequent stools and constipation and can significantly reduce the quality of life (Chey et al, 2015). A precursor of IBS in children is called recurrent abdominal pain (RAP) which affects between 0.3 to 19% of school children (Chitkara et al, 2005). Both IBS and RAP appear to be functional illnesses, as no organic causes have been identified to explain the symptoms. In the USA, this results in more than 3.1 physician visits and 5.9 million prescriptions written annually. The total direct and indirect cost of these services exceeds $20 billion (Chey et al, 2015). Multiple factors may contribute to IBS, such as genetics, food allergies, previous treatment with antibiotics, severity of infection, psychological status and stress. More recently, changes in the intestinal and colonic microbiome resulting in small intestine bacterial overgrowth are suggested as another risk factor (Dupont, 2014).
Generally, standard medical treatments (reassurance, dietary manipulation and of pharmacological therapy) are often ineffective in reducing abdominal IBS and other abdominal symptoms (Chey et al, 2015), while complementary and alternative approaches such as relaxation and cognitive therapy are more effective than traditional medical treatment (Vlieger et, 2008). More recently, heart rate variability training to enhance sympathetic/ parasympathetic balance appears to be a successful strategy to treat functional abdominal pain (FAB) in children (Sowder et al, 2010). Sympathetic/parasympathetic balance can be enhanced by increasing heart rate variability (HRV), which occurs when a person breathes at their resonant frequency which is usually between 5-7 breaths per minute. For most people, it means breathing much slower, as slow abdominal breathing appears to be a self-control strategy to reduce symptoms of IBS, RAP and FAP.
This article describes how a young woman healed herself from IBS with slow abdominal breathing without any therapeutic coaching, reviews how slower diaphragmatic breathing (abdominal breathing) may reduce symptoms of IBS, explores the possibility that breathing is more than increasing sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, and suggests some self-care strategies to reduce the symptoms of IBS.
Healing IBS-a case report
After being diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome her Junior year of high school, doctors told Cindy her condition was incurable and could only be managed at best, although she would have it throughout her entire life. With adverse symptoms including excessive weight loss and depression, Cindy underwent monthly hospital visits and countless tests, all which resulted in doctors informing her that her physical and psychological symptoms were due to her untreatable condition known as IBS, of which no one had ever been cured. When doctors offered her what they believed to be the best option: morphine, something Cindy describes now as a “band-aid,” she was left feeling discouraged. Hopeless and alone in her hospital bed, she decided to take matters into her own hands and began to pursue other options. From her cell phone, Cindy discovered something called “diaphragmatic breathing,” a technique which involved breathing through the stomach. This strategy could help to bring warmth to the abdominal region by increasing blood flow throughout abdomen, thereby relieving discomfort of the bowel. Although suspicious of the scientific support behind this method, previous attempts at traditional western treatment had provided no benefit to recovery; therefore, she found no harm in trying. Lying back flat against the hospital bed, she relaxed her body completely, and began to breathe. Immediately, Cindy became aware that she took her breath in her chest, rather than her stomach. Pushing out all of her air, she tried again, this time gasping with inhalation. Delighted, she watched as air flooded into her stomach, causing it to rise beneath her hands, while her chest remained still. Over time, Cindy began to develop more awareness and control over her newfound strategy. While practicing, she could feel her stomach and abdomen becoming warmer. Cindy shares that for the first time in years, she felt relief from pain, causing her to cry from happiness. Later that day, she was released from the hospital, after denying any more pain medication from doctors.
Cindy continues to practice her diaphragmatic breathing as much as she can, anywhere at all, at the sign of pain or discomfort, as well as preventatively prior to what she anticipates will be a stressful situation. Since beginning her practice, Cindy says that her IBS is pretty much non-existent now. She no longer feels depressed about her situation due to her developed ability to manage her condition. Overall, she is much happier. Moreover, since this time two years ago, Cindy has gained approximately 20 pounds, which she attributes to eating a lot more. In regard to her success, she believes it was her drive, motivation, and willingness to dedicate herself fully to the breathing practice which allowed for her to develop skills and prosper. Although it was not natural for her to breathe in her stomach at first, a trait which she says she often recognizes in others, Cindy explains it was due to necessity which caused her to shift her previously-ingrained way of breathing. Upon publicly sharing her story with others for the first time, Cindy reflects on her past, revealing that she experienced shame for a long time as she felt that she had a weird condition, related to abnormal functions, which no one ever talks about. On the experience of speaking out, she affirms that it was very empowering, and hopes to encourage others coping with a situation similar to hers that there is in fact hope for the future. Cindy continues to feel empowered, confident, and happy after taking control of her own body, and acknowledges that her condition is a part of her, something of which she is proud.
Watch the in-depth interview with Cindy Huey in which she describes her experience of discovering diaphragmatic breathing and how she used this to heal herself of IBS
Video 1. Interview with Cindy Huey describing how she healed herself from IBS.
“Why should the body digest food or repair itself, when it will be someone else’s lunch” (paraphrased from Sapolsky (2004), Why zebras do not get ulcers).
From an evolutionary perspective, we were prey and needed to be on guard (vigilant) to the presence of predators. In the long forgotten past, the predators were tigers, snakes, and the carnivore for whom we were food as well as other people. Today, the same physiological response pathways are still operating, except that the pathways are now more likely to be activated by time urgency, work and family conflict, negative mental rehearsal and self-judgment. This is reflected in the common colloquial phrases: “It makes me sick to my stomach,” “I have no stomach for it,” “He is gutless,” “It makes me queasy,” “Butterflies in my stomach,” “Don’t get your bowels in uproar,” “Gut feelings’, or “Scared shitless.”
Whether conscious or unconscious, when threatened, our body reacts with a fight/flight/freeze response in which the blood flow is diverted from the abdomen to deep muscles used for propulsion. This results in peristalsis being reduced. At the same time the abdomen tends to brace to protect it from injury. In almost all cases, the breathing patterns shift to thoracic breathing with limited abdominal movement. As the breathing pattern is predominantly in the chest, the person increases the risk of hyperventilation because the body is ready to run or fight.
In our clinical observations, people with IBS, small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), abdominal discomfort, anxiety and panic, and abdominal pain tend to breathe more in their chest, and when asked to take breathe, they tend to inhale in their upper chest with little or no abdominal displacement. Almost anyone who experiences abdominal pain tends to hold the abdomen rigid as if the splinting could reduce the pain. A similar phenomenon is observed with female students experiencing menstrual cramps. They tend to curl up to protect themselves and breathe shallowly in their chest instead of slowly in their abdomen, a body pattern which triggers a defense reaction and inhibits regeneration. If instead they breathe slowly and uncurl they report a significant decrease in discomfort (Gibney & Peper, 2003).
Paradoxically, this protective stance of bracing the abdomen and breathing shallowly in the chest increases breathing rate and reduces heart rate variability. It reduces and inhibits blood and lymph flow through the abdomen as the defensive posture evokes the physiology of fight/flight/freeze. The reduction in venous blood and lymph flow occurs because the ongoing compression and expansion in the abdomen is inhibited by the thoracic breathing and, moreover, the inhibition of diaphragmatic breathing. It also inhibits peristalsis and digestion. No wonder so many of the people with IBS report that they are reactive to some foods. If the GI track has reduced blood flow and reduced peristalsis, it may be less able to digest foods which would affect the bacteria in the small intestine and colon. We wonder if a risk factor that contributes to SIBO is chronic lack of abdominal movement and bracing.
Slow diaphragmatic abdominal breathing to establish health
“Digestion and regeneration occurs when the person feels safe.”
Effortless, slow diaphragmatic breathing occurs when the diaphragm descends and pushes the abdominal content downward during inhalation, which causes the abdomen to become bigger. As the abdomen expands, the pelvic floor relaxes and descends. During exhalation, the pelvic floor muscles tighten slightly, lifting the pelvic floor and the transverse and oblique abdominal muscles contract and push the abdominal content upward against the diaphragm, allowing the diaphragm to relax and go upward, pushing the air out. The following video, 3D view of the diaphragm, from www.3D-Yoga.com by illustrates the movement of the diaphragm.
This expansion and constriction of the abdomen occurs most easily if the person is extended, whether sitting or standing erect or lying down, and the waist is not constricted. If the arches forward in a protected pattern and the spine is flexed in a c shape, it would compress the abdomen; instead, the body is long and the abdomen can move and expand during inhalation as the diaphragm descends (see figure 1). If the person holds their abdomen tight or it is constricted by clothing or a belt, it cannot expand during inhalation. Abdominal breathing occurs more easily when the person feels safe and expanded versus unsafe or fearful and collapsed or constricted.
Figure 1. Erect versus collapsed posture note that there is less space for the abdomen to expand in the protective collapsed position. Reproduced by permission from: Clinical Somatics (http://www.clinicalsomatics.ie/
When a person breathes slower and lower it encourages blood and lymph flow through the abdomen. As the person continues to practice slower, lower breathing, it reduces the arousal and vigilance. This is the opposite state of the flight, fight, freeze response so that blood flow is increased in abdomen, and peristalsis re-occurs. When the person practices slow exhalation and breathing and they slightly tighten the oblique and transverse abdominal muscles as well as the pelvic floor and allow these muscles to relax during inhalation. When they breathe in this pattern effortless they, they often will experience an increase in abdominal warmth and an initiation of abdominal sounds (stomach rumble or borborygmus) which indicates that peristalsis has begun to move food through the intestines (Peper et al., 2016). For a detailed description see https://peperperspective.com/2016/04/26/allow-natural-breathing-with-abdominal-muscle-biofeedback-1-2/
What can you do to reduce IBS
There are many factors that cause and effect IBS, some of which we have control over and some which are our out of our control, such as genetics. The purpose of proposed suggestions is to focus on those things over which you have control and reduce risk factors that negatively affect the gastrointestinal track. Generally, begin by integrating self-healing strategies that promote health which have no negative side effects before agreeing to do more aggressive pharmaceutical or even surgical interventions which could have negative side effects. Along the way, work collaboratively with your health care provider. Experiment with the following:
- Avoid food and drinks that may irritate the gastrointestinal tract. These include coffee, hot spices, dairy products, wheat and many others. If you are not sure whether you are reacting to a food or drink, keep a detailed log of what you eat and drink and how you feel. Do self-experimentation by eating or drinking the specific food by itself as the first food in the morning. Then observe how you feel in the next two hours. If possible, eat only organic foods that have not been contaminated by herbicides and pesticides (see: https://peperperspective.com/2015/01/11/are-herbicides-a-cause-for-allergies-immune-incompetence-and-adhd/).
- Identify and resolve stressors, conflicts and problems that negatively affect you and drain your energy. Keep a log to identify situations that drain or increase your subjective energy. Then do problem solving to reduce those situations that drain your energy and increase those situations that increase your energy. For a detailed description of the practice see https://peperperspective.com/2012/12/09/increase-energy-gains-decrease-energy-drains/
Often the most challenging situations that we cannot stomach are those where we feel defeated, helpless, hopeless and powerless or situations where we feel threatened– we do not feel safe. Reach out to other both friends and social services to explore how these situations can be resolved. In some cases, there is nothing that can be done except to accept what is and go on.
- Feel safe. As long as we feel unsafe, we have to be vigilant and are stressed which affects the GI track. Explore the following:
- What does safety mean for you?
- What causes you to feel unsafe from the past or the present?
- What do you need to feel safe?
- Who can offer support that you feel safe?
Reflect on these questions and then explore and implement ways by which you can create feeling more safe.
- Take breaks to regenerate. During the day, at work and at home, monitor yourself. Are you pushing yourself to complete tasks. In a 24/7 world with many ongoing responsibilities, we are unknowingly vigilant and do not allow ourselves to rest and relax to regenerate. Do not wait till you feel tired or exhausted. Stop earlier and take a short break. The break can be a short walk, a cup of tea or soup, or looking outside at a tree. During this break, think about positive events that have happened or people who love you and for whom you feel love. When you smile and think of someone who loves you, such as a grandparent, you may relax and for that moment as you feel safe which allows regeneration to begin.
- Observe how you inhale. Take a deep breath. If you feel you are moving upward and becoming a little bit taller, your breathing is wrong. Put one hand on your lower abdomen and the other on your chest and take a deep breath. If you observe your chest lifted upward and stomach did not expand, your breathing is wrong. You are not breathing diaphragmatically. Watch the following video, The correct way to breathe in, on how to observe your breathing and how to breathe diaphragmatically.
- Learn diaphragmatic breathing. Take time to practice diaphragmatic breathing. Practice while lying down and sitting or standing. Let the breathing rate slow down to about six breaths per minute. Exhale to the count of four and then let it trail off for two more counts, and inhale to the count of three and let it trail for another count. Practice this sitting and lying down (for more details on breathing see: https://peperperspective.com/2014/09/11/a-breath-of-fresh-air-improve-health-with-breathing/.
- Sitting position. Exhale by feeling your abdomen coming inward slightly for the count of four and trailing off for the count of two, then allow the lower ribs to widen, abdomen expand–the whole a trunk expands–as you inhale while the shoulders stay relaxed for a count of three. Allow it to trail off for one more count before you again begin to exhale. Be gentle, do not rush or force yourself. Practice this slower breathing for five minutes. Focus more on the exhalation and allowing the air to just flow in. Give yourself time during the transition between inhalation and exhalation.
- Lying down position. While lying on your back, place a two to five-pound weight such as a bag of rice on your stomach as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Lying down and practicing breathing with two to five-pound weight on stomach (reproduced by permission from Gorter and Peper, 2011.
As you inhale push the weight upward and also feel your lower ribs widen. Then allow exhalation to occur by the weight pushing the abdominal content down which pushes the diaphragm upward. This causing the breath to flow out. As you exhale, imagine the air flowing out through your legs as if there were straws inside your legs. When your attention wanders, smile and bring it back to imagining the air flowing down your legs during exhalation. Practice this for twenty minutes. Many people report that during the practice the gurgling in their abdomen occurs which is a sign that peristalsis and healing is returning.
- Observe and change your breathing during the day. Observe your breathing pattern during the day. Each time you hold your breath, gasp or breathe in your chest, interrupt the pattern and substitute slow diaphragmatic breathing for the next five breaths. Do this the whole day long. Many people observe that when they think of stressor or are worried, they hold their breath or shallow breathe in the chest. If this occurs, acknowledge the worry and focus on changing your breathing. This does not mean that you dismiss the concern, instead for this moment you focus on breathing and then explore ways to solve the problem.
If you observed that under specific circumstance you held your breath or breathed shallowly in your chest, then whenever you anticipate that the same event will occur again, begin to breathe diaphragmatically. To do this consistently is very challenging and most people report that initially they only seem to breathe incorrectly. It takes practice, practice and practice—mindful practice– to change. Yet those who continue to practice often report a decrease in symptoms and feel more energy and improved quality of life.
Changing habitual health behaviors such as diet and breathing can be remarkably challenging; however, it is possible. Give yourself enough time, and practice it many times until it becomes automatic. It is no different from learning to play a musical instrument or mastering a sport. Initially, it feels impossible, and with lot of practice it becomes more and more automatic. We continue to be impressed that healing is possible. Among our students at San Francisco State University, who practice their self-healing skills for five weeks, approximately 80% report a significant improvement in their health (Peper et al., 2014).
* This blog was adapted and expanded from: Peper, E., Mason, L., & Huey, C. (2017). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback. 45(4), 83-87. DOI: 10.5298/1081-5937-45.4.04 https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/a-healing-ibs-published.pdf
Chey, W. D., Kurlander, J., & Eswaran, S. (2015). Irritable bowel syndrome: a clinical review. Jama, 313(9), 949-958.
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 Gastroenterology, 100(8), 1868-1875.
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 & therapeutics, 39(10), 1033-1042.
Gibney, H.K. & Peper, E. (2003). Taking control: Strategies to reduce hot flashes and premenstrual mood swings. Biofeedback, 31(3), 20-24.
Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting Cancer-A NonToxic Approach to Treatment. Berkeley: North Atlantic.
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49.
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.
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Owl Books
Sowder, E., Gevirtz, R., Shapiro, W., & Ebert, C. (2010). Restoration of vagal tone: a possible mechanism for functional abdominal pain. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 35(3), 199-206.
Vlieger, A. M., Blink, M., Tromp, E., & Benninga, M. A. (2008). Use of complementary and alternative medicine by pediatric patients with functional and organic gastrointestinal diseases: results from a multicenter survey. Pediatrics, 122(2), e446-e451.
Joy and laughter are healing and contagious (Wang, 2006). When we laugh, our mood lightens, we feel better and our health improves (Bennett & Lengacher, 2006a; Bennett & Lengacher, 2006b; Bennett & Lengacher, 2008; Bennett & Lengacher, 2009). As Norman Cousins, who had ankylosing spondylitis (a degenerative disease causing the breakdown of collagen) which left him in severe pain that even morphine couldn’t touch, claimed that 10 minutes of belly laughter would give him two hours of pain-free sleep. He documented his remarkable recovery in his book Anatomy of an illness (Cousins, 2005). Laughter and joy has the ability to transform your health.
Despite the challenges you may face, the actual troubles that may occur during the day, or feeling frustrated or depressed, treat yourself to a moment of joy and laughter. Through laughing, we relax and support the intrinsic self-healing processes in our body. Even in suffering we have a choice of what to feed our brain. Enjoy watching the following videos.
Finally, watch Norman Cousins describe his own healing experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LwKd68S15I
Also see the embedded videos posted on: http://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/norman-cousins-a-laughterpain-case-study/
Bennett, M. P., & Lengacher, C. (2006b). Humor and laughter may influence health: II. Complementary therapies and humor in a clinical population. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 3(2), 187-190.
“After two and a half years of trying, ups and downs, and a long period of thinking it will never happen, it did happen. I followed your advice by only applying pressure with the cones while inhaling and at the same time relaxing the pelvic floor. We succeeded! we had “real” sex in the first time.”
Millions of women experience involuntary contraction of the musculature of the outer third of the vagina (vaginismus) interfering with intercourse, causing distress and interpersonal difficulty (ter Kuile et, 2010) or pain during intercourse (dyspareunia). It is estimated that 1 to 6% of women have vaginismus (Lewis et al, 2004) and 6.5% to 45.0% in older women and from 14% to 34% in younger women experience dyspareunia (Van Lankveld et al, 2010; Gross & Brubaker, 2022). The most common treatment for vaginismus is sequential dilation of the vaginal opening with progressively larger cones, psychotherapy and medications to reduce the pain and anxiety. At times clients and health care professionals may be unaware of the biological processes that influence the muscle contraction and relaxation of the pelvic floor. Success is more likely if the client works in harmony with the biological processes while practicing self-healing and treatment protocols. These biological processes, described at the end of the blog significantly affects the opening of vestibule and vagina are: 1) feeling safe, 2) inhale during insertion to relax the pelvic floor, 3) stretch very, very slowly to avoid triggering the stretch reflex, and 4) being sexual aroused.
Successful case report: There is hope to resolve pain and vaginismus
Yesterday my husband and I had sex in the first time, after two and a half years of “trying”. Why did it take so long? Well, the doctor said “vaginismus”, the psychologist said “fear”, the physiotherapist said “constricted muscles”, and friends said “just relax, drink some wine and it will happen”.
Sex was always a weird, scary, complicated – and above all, painful – world to me. It may have started in high school: like many other teens, I thought a lot about sex and masturbated almost every night. Masturbation was a good feeling followed by tons of bad feelings – guilt, shame, and feeling disgusting. One of the ideas I had to accept, later in my progress, is that ‘feeling good is a good thing’. It is normal, permitted and even important and healthy.
My first experience, at age 20, was short, very painful, and without any love or even affection. He was…. well, not for me. And I was…. well, naive and with very little knowledge about my body. The experiences that came after that, with other guys, were frustrating. Neither of them knew how to handle the pain that sex caused me, and I didn’t know what to do.
The first gynecologist said that everything is fine and I just need to relax. No need to say I left her clinic very angry and in pain. The second gynecologist was the first one to give it a name: “vaginismus”. He said that there are some solutions to the problem: anesthetic ointment, physiotherapy (“which is rarely helps”, according to his optimistic view..), and if these won’t work “we will start thinking of surgery, which is very painful and you don’t want to go there”. Oh, I certainly didn’t want to go there.
After talking to a friend whose sister had the same problem, I started seeing a great physiotherapist who was an expert in these problems. She used a vaginal biofeedback sensor, that measured muscles’ tonus inside the vagina. My homework were 30 constrictions every day, plus working with “dilators” – plastic cones comes in 6 sizes, starting from a size of a small finger, to a size of a penis.
At this point I was already in a relationship with my husband, who was understanding, calm and most important – very patient. To be honest, we both never thought it would take so long. Practicing was annoying and painful, and I found myself thinking a lot “is it worth it?”. After a while, I felt that the physical practice is not enough, and I need a “psychological breakthrough”. So I stopped practicing and started seeing a psychologist, for about a half a year. We processed my past experiences, examined the thoughts and beliefs I had about sex, and that way we released some of the tension that was shrinking my body.
The next step was to continue practicing with the dilators, but honestly – I had no motivation. My husband and I had great sex without the actual penetration, and I didn’t want the painful practice again. Fortunately, I participated in a short course given by Professor Erik Peper, about biofeedback therapy. In his lecture he described a young woman, who suffered from vulvodynia, a problem that is a bit similar to vaginismus (Peper et al, 2015; See: https://peperperspective.com/2015/09/25/resolving-pelvic-floor-pain-a-case-report/). She learned how to relax her body and deal with the pain, and finally she had sex – and even enjoyed it! I was inspired.
Erik Peper gave me a very important advice: breathing in. Apparently, we can relax the muscles and open the vagina better while inhaling, instead of exhaling – as I tried before. During exhalation the pelvic floor tightens and goes upward while during inhalation the pelvic floor descends and relaxes especially when sitting up (Peper et al, 2016). He advised me to give myself a few minutes with the dilator, and in every inhale – imagine the area opening and insert the dilator a few millimeters. I started practicing again, but in a sitting position, which I found more comfortable and less painful. I advanced to the biggest dilator within a few weeks, and had a just little pain – sometimes without any pain at all. The most important thing I understood was not to be afraid of the pain. The fear is what made me even more tensed, and tension brings pain. Then, my husband and I started practicing with “the real thing”, very slowly and gently, trying to find the best position and angle for us. Finally, we did it. And it was a great feeling.
The biological factors that affect the relaxation/contraction of the pelvic floor and vaginal opening are:
Feeling safe and hopeful. When threatened, scared, anticipate pain, and worry, our body triggers a defense reaction. In this flexor response, labeled by Thomas Hanna as the Red Light Reflex, the body curls up in defense to protect itself which includes the shoulders to round, the chest to be depressed, the legs pressing together, the pelvic floor to tighten and the head to jut forward (Hanna, 2004). This is the natural response of fear, anxiety, prolonged stress or negative depressive thinking.
Before beginning to work on vaginismus, feel safe. This means accepting what is, accepting that it is not your fault, and that there are no demands for performance. It also means not anticipating that it will be again painful because with each anticipation the pelvic floor tends to tightens. Read the chapter on vaginismus in Dr. Lonnie Barbach’s book, For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy (Barbach, 1983).
Inhale during insertion to relax the pelvic floor and vaginal opening. This instruction is seldom taught because in most instances, we have been taught to exhale while relaxing. Exhaling while relaxing is true for most muscles; however, it is different for the pelvic floor. When inhalation occurs, the pelvic floor descends and relaxes. During exhalation the pelvic floor tightens and ascends to support breathing and push the diaphragm upward to exhale the air. Be sure to allow the abdomen to expand during inhalation without lifting the chest and allow the abdomen to constrict during exhalation as if inhalation fills the balloon in the abdomen and exhalation deflates the balloon (for detailed instructions see Peper et al, 2016). Do not inhale by lifting and expanding your chest which often occurs during gasping and and fear. It tends to tighten and lift the pelvic floor.
Experience the connection between diaphragmatic breathing and pelvic floor movement in the following practice.
While sitting upright make a hissing noise as the air escapes with pressure between your lips. As you are exhaling feel, your abdomen and your anus tightening. During the inhalation let your abdomen expand and feel how your anus descends and pelvic floor relaxes. With practice this will become easier.
Stretch very, very slowly to avoid triggering the stretch reflex. When a muscle is rapidly stretched, it triggers an automatic stretch reflex which causes the muscle to contract. This innate response occurs to avoid damaging the muscle by over stretching. The stretch reflex is also triggered by pain and puts a brake on the stretching. Always use a lubricant when practicing by yourself or with a partner. Practice inserting larger and larger diameter dilaters into the vagina. Start with a very small diameter and progress to a larger diameter. These can be different diameter cones, your finger, or other objects. Remember to inhale and feel the pelvic floor descending as you insert the probe or finger. If you feel discomfort/pain, stop pushing, keep breathing, relax your shoulders, relax your hips, legs, and toes and do not push inward and upward again until the discomfort has faded out.
Feel sexually aroused by allowing enough foreplay. When sexually aroused the tissue is more lubricated and may stretch easier. Continue to use a good lubricant.
Putting it all together.
When you feel safe, practice slow diaphragmatic breathing and be aware of the pelvic floor relaxing and descending during inhalation and contracting and going up during exhalation. When practicing stretching the opening with cones or your finger, go very, very slow. Only apply pressure of insertion during the mid-phase of inhalation, then wait during exhalation and then again insert slight more during the next inhalation. When you experience pain, relax your shoulders, keep breathing for four or five breaths till the pain subsides, then push very little during the next inhalation. Go much slower and with more tenderness.
Be patient. Explain to your partner that your body and mind need time to adjust to new feelings. However, don’t stop having sex – you can have great sex without penetration. Practice both alone and with your partner; together find the best angle and rate. Use different lubricants to check out what is best for you. Any little progress is getting you closer to having an enjoyable sex. I recommend watching this TED video of Emily Nagoski explaining the “dual control model” and practicing as she suggests: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HILY0wWBlBM
Finally, practice the exercises developed by Dr. Lonnie Barbach, who as one of the first co-directors of clinical training at the University of California San Francisco, Human Sexuality Program, created the women’s pre-orgasmic group treatment program. They are superbly described in her two books, For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy, and For yourself: The fulfillment of female sexuality, and are a must read for anyone desiring to increase sexual fulfillment and joy (Barbach, 2000; 1983).
Barbach, L. (1983). For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy. New York: Anchor
Barbach, L. (2000). For yourself: The fulfillment of female sexuality. New York: Berkley.
BarLewis, R. W., Fugl‐Meyer, K. S., Bosch, R., Fugl‐Meyer, A. R., Laumann, E. O., Lizza, E., & Martin‐Morales, A. (2004). Epidemiology/risk factors of sexual dysfunction. The journal of sexual medicine, 1(1), 35-39. http://www.jsm.jsexmed.org/article/S1743-6095(15)30062-X/fulltext
Gross. E. & Brubaker, L. (2022). Dyspareunia in Women. JAMA. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2022.4853
Hanna, T. (2004). Somatics: Reawakening the mind’s control of movement, flexibility, and health. Boston: Da Capo Press.
Martinez Aranda, P. & Peper, E. (2015). The healing of vulvodynia from a client’s perspective. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-healing-of-vulvodynia-from-the-client-perspective-2015-06-15.pdf
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/1-abdominal-semg-feedback-published.pdf
Peper, E., Martinez Aranda, P., & Moss, E. (2015). Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report. Biofeedback. 43(2), 103-109. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-vulvodynia-treated-with-biofeedback-published.pdf
Ter Kuile, M. M., Both, S., & van Lankveld, J. J. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for sexual dysfunctions in women. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3), 595-610. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45090259_Cognitive_Behavioral_Therapy_for_Sexual_Dysfunctions_in_Women
Van Lankveld, J. J., Granot, M., Weijmar Schultz, W., Binik, Y. M., Wesselmann, U., Pukall, C. F., . Achtrari, C. (2010). Women’s sexual pain disorders. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(1pt2), 615-631. http://www.jsm.jsexmed.org/article/S1743-6095(15)32867-8/fulltext
*We thank Dr. Lonnie Barbach for her helpful feedback and support. Written collaboratively with Tal Cohen, biofeedback therapist (Israel) and Erik Peper.
Mind-Guided Body Scans for Awareness and Healing Youtube Interview of Erik Peper, PhD by Larry Berkelhammer, PhDPosted: February 19, 2016
In this interview psychophysiology expert Dr. Erik Peper explains the ways how a body scan can facilitate awareness and healing. The discussion describes how the mind-guided body scan can be used to improve immune function and maintain passive attention (mindfulness), and become centered. It explores the process of passive attentive process that is part of Autogenic Training and self-healing mental imagery. Mind-guided body scanning involves effortlessly observing and attending to body sensations through which we can observe our own physiological processes. Body scanning can be combined with imagery to be in a nonjudgmental state that supports self-healing and improves physiological functioning.
Adapted from: Martinez Aranda, P. & Peper, E. (2015). The healing of vulvodynia from a client’s perspective. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-healing-of-vulvodynia-from-the-client-perspective-2015-06-15.pdf
It’s been a little over a year since I began practicing biofeedback and visualization strategies to overcome vulvodynia. Today, I feel whole, healed, and hopeful. I learned that through controlled and conscious breathing, I could unleash the potential to heal myself from chronic pain. Overcoming pain did not happen overnight; but rather, it was a process where I had to create and maintain healthy lifestyle habits and meditation. Not only am I thankful for having learned strategies to overcome chronic pain, but for acquiring skills that will improve my health for the rest of my life. –-24 year old woman who successfully resolved vulvodynia
Pelvic floor pain can be debilitating, and it is surprisingly common, affecting 10 to 25% of American women. Pelvic floor pain has numerous causes and names. It can be labeled as vulvar vestibulitis, an inflammation of vulvar tissue, interstitial cystitis (chronic pain or tenderness in the bladder), or even lingering or episodic hip, back, or abdominal pain. Chronic pain concentrated at the entrance to the vagina (vulva), is known as vulvodynia. It is commonly under-diagnosed, often inadequately treated, and can go on for months and years (Reed et al., 2007; Mayo Clinic, 2014). The discomfort can be so severe that sitting is uncomfortable and intercourse is impossible because of the extreme pain. The pain can be overwhelming and destructive of the patient’s life. As the participant reported,
I visited a vulvar specialist and he gave me drugs, which did not ease the discomfort. He mentioned surgical removal of the affected tissue as the most effective cure (vestibulectomy). I cried immediately upon leaving the physician’s office. Even though he is an expert on the subject, I felt like I had no psychological support. I was on Gabapentin to reduce pain, and it made me very depressed. I thought to myself: Is my life, as I know it, over?
Physically, I was in pain every single day. Sometimes it was a raging burning sensation, while other times it was more of an uncomfortable sensation. I could not wear my skinny jeans anymore or ride a bike. I became very depressed. I cried most days because I felt old and hopeless instead of feeling like a vibrant 23-year-old woman. The physical pain, combined with my negative feelings, affected my relationship with my boyfriend. We were unable to have sex at all, and because of my depressed status, we could not engage in any kind of fun. (For more details, read the published case report,Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report).
The four-session holistic biofeedback interventions to successfully resolved vulvodynia included teaching diaphragmatic breathing to transform shallow thoracic breathing into slower diaphragmatic breathing, transforming feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness to empowerment and transforming her beliefs that she could reduce her symptoms and optimize her health. The interventions also incorporated self-healing imagery and posture-changing exercises. The posture changes consisted of developing awareness of the onset of moving into a collapsed posture and use this awareness to shift to an erect/empowered postures (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010; Peper, 2014; Peper, Booiman, Lin, & Harvey, in press). Finally, this case report build upon the seminal of electromyographic feedback protocol developed by Dr. Howard Glazer (Glazer & Hacad, 2015) and the integrated relaxation protocol developed Dr. David Wise (Wise & Anderson, 2007).
Through initial biofeedback monitoring of the lower abdominal muscle activity, chest, and abdomen breathing patterns, the participant observed that when she felt discomfort or was fearful, her lower abdomen muscles tended to tighten. After learning how to sense this tightness, she was able to remind herself to breathe lower and slower, relax the abdominal wall during inhalation and sit or stand in an erect power posture.
The self-mastery approach for healing is based upon a functional as compared to a structural perspective. The structural perspective implies that the problem can only be fixed by changing the physical structure such as with surgery or medications. The functional perspective assumes that if you can learn to change your dysfunctional psychophysiological patterns the disorder may disappear.
The functional approach assumed that an irritation of the vestibular area might have caused the participant to tighten her lower abdomen and pelvic floor muscles reflexively in a covert defense reaction. In addition, ongoing worry and catastrophic thinking (“I must have surgery, it will never go away, I can never have sex again, my boyfriend will leave me”) also triggered the defense reaction—further tightening of her lower abdomen and pelvic area, shallow breathing, and concurrent increases in sympathetic nervous activation—which together activated the trigger points that lead to increased chronic pain (Banks et al, 1998).
When the participant experienced a sensation or thought/worried about the pain, her body responded in a defense reaction by breathing in her chest and tightening the lower abdominal area as monitored with biofeedback. Anticipation of being monitored increased her shoulder tension, recalling the stressful memory increased lower abdominal muscle tension (pulling in the abdomen for protection), and the breathing became shallow and rapid as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Physiological recording of pre-stressor relaxation, the recall of a fearful driving experience, and a post-stressor relaxation. The scalene to trapezius SEMG increased in anticipation while she recalled the experience, and then initially did not relax (from Peper, Martinez Aranda, & Moss, 2015).
This defense pattern became a conditioned response—initiating intercourse or being touched in the affected area caused the participant to tense and freeze up. She was unaware of these automatic protective patterns, which only worsened her chronic pain.
During the four sessions of training, the participant learned to reverse and interrupt the habitual defense reaction. For example, as she became aware of her breathing patterns she reported,
It was amazing to see on the computer screen the difference between my regular breathing pattern and my diaphragmatic breathing pattern. I could not believe I had been breathing that horribly my whole life, or at least, for who knows how long. My first instinct was to feel sorry for myself. Then, rather than practicing negative patterns and thoughts, I felt happy because I was learning how to breathe properly. My pain decreased from an 8 to alternating between a 0 and 3.
The mastery of slower and lower abdominal breathing within a holistic perspective resulted in the successful resolution of her vulvodynia. An essential component of the training included allowing the participant to feel safe, and creating hope by enabling her to experience a decrease in discomfort while doing a specific practice, and assisting her to master skills to promote self-healing. Instead of feeling powerless and believing that the only resolution was the removal of the affected area (vestibulectomy). The integrated biofeedback protocol offered skill mastery training, to promote self-healing through diaphragmatic breathing, somatic postural changes, reframing internal language, and healing imagery as part of a common sense holistic health approach.
For more details about the case report, download the published study, Peper, E., Martinez Aranda, P., & Moss, E. (2015). Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report. Biofeedback. 43(2), 103-109.
The participant also wrote up her subjective experience of the integrated biofeedback process in the paper, Martinez Aranda & Peper (2015). Healing of vulvodynia from the client perspective. In this paper she articulated her understanding and experiences in resolving vulvodynia which sheds light on the internal processes that are so often skipped over in published reports.
At the five year follow-up on May 29, 2019, she wrote:
“I am doing very well, and I am very healthy. The vulvodynia symptoms have never come back. It migrated to my stomach a couple of years after, and I still have a sensitive stomach. My stomach has gotten much, much better, though. I don’t really have random pain anymore, now I just have to be watchful and careful of my diet and my exercise, which are all great things!”
Banks, S. L., Jacobs, D. W., Gevirtz, R., & Hubbard, D. R. (1998). Effects of autogenic relaxation training on electromyographic activity in active myofascial trigger points. Journal of Musculoskeletal Pain, 6(4), 23-32. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Hubbard/publication/232035243_Effects_of_Autogenic_Relaxation_Training_on_Electromyographic_Activity_in_Active_Myofascial_Trigger_Points/links/5434864a0cf2dc341daf4377.pdf
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. Available from: https://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/mygsb/faculty/research/pubfiles/4679/power.poses_.PS_.2010.pdf
Glazer, H. & Hacad, C.R. (2015). The Glazer Protocol: Evidence-Based Medicine Pelvic Floor Muscle (PFM) Surface Electromyography (SEMG). Biofeedback, 40(2), 75-79. http://www.aapb-biofeedback.com/doi/abs/10.5298/1081-5937-40.2.4
Martinez Aranda, P. & Peper, E. (2015). Healing of vulvodynia from the client perspective. Available from: https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-healing-of-vulvodynia-from-the-client-perspective-2015-06-15.pdf
Mayo Clinic (2014). Diseases and conditions: Vulvodynia. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vulvodynia/basics/definition/con-20020326
Peper, E. (2014). Increasing strength and mood by changing posture and sitting habits. Western Edition, pp.10, 12. Available from: http://thewesternedition.com/admin/files/magazines/WE-July-2014.pdf
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I, M.,& Harvey, R. (in press). Increase strength and mood with posture. Biofeedback.
Peper, E., Martinez Aranda, P., & Moss, E. (2015). Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report. Biofeedback. 43(2), 103-109. Available from: https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-vulvodynia-treated-with-biofeedback-published.pdf
Reed, B. D., Haefner, H. K., Sen, A., & Gorenflo, D. W. (2008). Vulvodynia incidence and remission rates among adult women: a 2-year follow-up study. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 112(2, Part 1), 231-237. http://journals.lww.com/greenjournal/Abstract/2008/08000/Vulvodynia_Incidence_and_Remission_Rates_Among.6.aspx
Wise, D., & Anderson, R. U. (2006). A headache in the pelvis: A new understanding and treatment for prostatitis and chronic pelvic pain syndromes. Occidental, CA: National Center for Pelvic Pain Research.http://www.pelvicpainhelp.com/books/
I finally bought a separate keyboard and a small stand for my laptop so that the screen is at eye level and my shoulders are relaxed while typing at the keyboard. To my surprise, my neck and shoulder tightness and pain disappeared and I am much less exhausted.
How we sit and work at the computer significantly affects our health and productivity. Ergonomics is the science that offers guidelines on how to adjust your workspace and equipment to suit your individual needs. It is just like choosing appropriate shoes–Ever try jogging in high heels? The same process applies to the furniture and equipment you use when computing.
When people arrange their work setting according to good ergonomic principles and incorporate a healthy computing work style numerous disorders (e.g., fatigue, vision discomfort, head, neck, back, shoulder, arm or hand pain) may be prevented (Peper et al, 2004). For pragmatic tips to stay health at the computer see Erik Peper’s Health Computer Email Tips. Enjoy the following superb video cartoons uploaded by Stephen Walker on YouTube that summarize the basic guidelines for computer, laptop and cell phones use at work, home, or while traveling.
Adult or Child Laptop Use at Home, Work or Classroom
Healthy use of laptops anywhere.
Mobile or Smart Phone Use while Driving, Traveling or on the Move.
“My breathing was something that took me a long time to adjust. I had been breathing almost entirely from my chest and my stomach was hardly moving when I breathed. I made a conscious effort all throughout the day to breathe slowly and with my stomach relaxed. I’ve noticed that my mood is much better when I am breathing this way, and I am much more relaxed. Immediately before I feel like I would have a seizure, if I would change my breathing technique and make sure I was breathing slowly and with my stomach. It would avoid the seizure from developing… This is a huge improvement for me.” –24 year old student who previously experienced 10 epileptic seizures per week
“I blanked out and could not remember the test material. I then reminded myself to breathe lower and slower while imagining the air slowly flowing down my legs. After three breaths, I could again process the information and continue to take the exam. A week later I got my grade back– an A-. Better than I had expected.” –21 year old student
Breathing occurs without awareness unless there are specific problems such as asthma, emphysema or when we run out of air while exercising. Breathing is more than just the air moving in and out. It is the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious—the voluntary and involuntary nervous system— and affects the sympathetic and parasympathetic activity of our body. The way we breathe, such as chronic low level hyperventilation, may contribute to increasing or decreasing anxiety, pain, epileptic seizure, exhaustion, abdominal pain, urinary incontinence or fertility.
We usually think of breathing occurring in our chest. Thus, during inhalation, we puff-up our chest so the lungs will expand. Observe that many people breathe this way and call it normal. Experience how you breathe:
Put your right and on your stomach and your left hand of your chest. Now take a quick big breath. Observe what happened. In most cases, your chest went up and your abdomen tightened and even pulled in.
This breathing pattern evokes a state of arousal and vigilance and activates your sympathetic nervous system. You tend to automatically tighten or pull in your stomach wall to protect your body. When we’re in pain, afraid, anticipate danger or have negative and fearful thoughts, “Do I have enough money for the rent,” or “Feeling rushed and waiting for a delayed Muni bus,” we instinctively hold our breath, slightly tense our muscles and breathe shallowly. Unfortunately, this makes the situation worse—symptoms such as pain, anxiety or abdominal discomfort will increase. This type of breathing is the part of the freeze response—a primal survival reflex. It may even affect our ability to think. Experience how dysfunctional breathing effects us by doing the following exercise (Peper & MacHose, 1993; Gorter & Peper, 2011).
Sit comfortably and breathe normally.
Now inhale normally, but exhale only 70 percent of the air you just inhaled.
Inhale again, and again only exhale 70 percent of the previously inhaled volume of air. If you need to sigh, just do it, and then return to this breathing pattern again by exhaling only 70 percent of the inhaled volume of air.
Continue to breathe in this pattern of 70 percent exhalation for about forty-five seconds, each time exhaling only 70 percent of the air you breathe in. Then stop, and observe what happened.
What did you notice? Within forty-five seconds, more than 98 percent of people report uncomfortable sensations such as lightheadedness, dizziness, anxiety or panic, tension in their neck, back, shoulders, or face, nervousness, an increased heart rate or palpitations, agitation or jitteriness, feeling flushed, tingling, breathlessness, chest pressure, gasping for air, or even a sensation of starving for air. This exercise may also aggravate symptoms that already exist, such as headaches, joint pain, or pain from an injury. If you’re feeling exhausted or stressed, the effects seem even worse.
On the other hand, if you breathed like a happy baby, or more like a peaceful dog lying on its side, the breathing movement occured mainly in the abdomen and the chest stays relaxed. This effortless diaphragmatic breathing promotes regeneration by allowing the abdomen to expand during inhalation and becoming smaller during exhalation as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Illustration of diaphragmatic breathing in which the abdomen expands during inhalation and contracts during exhalation (reproduced by permission from Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting Cancer-A Non Toxic Approach to Treatment. Berkeley: North Atlantic).
The abdominal movement created by the breathing improves blood and lymph circulation in the abdomen and normalizes gastrointestinal function and enhances regeneration. It supports sympathetic and parasympathetic balance especially when the breathing rate slows to about six breaths per minute. When breathing slower, exhaling takes about twice as long as the inhalation. When you inhale, the abdomen and lower ribs expand to allow the air to flow in and during exhalation the abdomen decreases in diameter and the breath slowly trails off. It is as if there is an upside down umbrella above the pelvic floor opening during inhalation and closing during exhalation.
Most people do not breathe this way . They suffer from “designer’s jean syndrome”. The clothing is too constricting to allow the abdomen to expand during inhalation (Remember how good it felt when you loosened your belt when eating a big meal?). Or, you are self-conscious of your stomach, “What would people thinks if my stomach hung out?” Yet, to regenerate, allow yourself to breathe like peaceful baby with the breathing movements occurring in the belly. Effortless diaphragmatic breathing is the cheapest way to improve your health. Thus observe yourself and transform your breathing patterns.
Interrupt breath holding and continue to breathe to enhance health. Observe situations where you hold your breath and then continue to breathe. If you expect pain during movement or a procedure, remember to allow your abdomen to expand during inhalation and then begin to exhaling whispering “Shhhhhhhhh.” Start exhaling and then begin your movement while continuing to exhale. In almost all cases the movement is less painful and easier. We observed this identical breathing pattern in our studies of Mr. Kawakami, a yogi who insert unsterilized skewers through his neck and tongue while exhaling—he did not experience any pain or bleeding as shown in Fig 2.
Figure 2. Demonstration by Mr. Kawakami, a yogi, who inserted non-sterile skewers while exhaling and reported no pain. When he removed the skewers there was no bleeding and the tissue healed rapidly (by permission from Peper, E., Kawakami, M., Sata, M. & Wilson, V.S. (2005). The physiological correlates of body piercing by a yoga master: Control of pain and bleeding. Subtle Energies & Energy Medicine Journal. 14(3), 223-237).
Shift shallow chest breathing to slower diaphragmatic breathing. Each time you catch yourself breathing higher in your chest. Stop. Focus on allowing your abdomen to expand during inhalation and become smaller during exhalation as if it was a balloon. Allow the air to flow smoothly during exhalation and allow the exhalation to be twice as long as the inhalation. Over time allow yourself to inhale to the count of three and exhale to the count of 6 or 7 without effort. Imagine that when you exhale the air flows down and through your legs and out your feet. As you continue to breathe this way, your heart rate will slightly increase during inhalation and decrease during exhalation which is an indication of sympathetic and parasympathetic restorative balance. A state that supports regeneration (for more information see, Peper, E. & Vicci Tibbetts, Effortless diaphragmatic breathing).
For many people when they practice these simple breathing skills during the day their blood pressure, anxiety and even pain decreases. While for other, it allows clarity of thought.