“After two and a half years of trying, ups and downs, and a long period of thinking it will never happen, it did happen. I followed your advice by only applying pressure with the cones while inhaling and at the same time relaxing the pelvic floor. We succeeded! we had “real” sex in the first time.”
Millions of women experience involuntary contraction of the musculature of the outer third of the vagina (vaginismus) interfering with intercourse, causing distress and interpersonal difficulty (ter Kuile et, 2010) or pain during intercourse (dyspareunia). It is estimated that 1 to 6% of women have vaginismus (Lewis et al, 2004) and 6.5% to 45.0% in older women and from 14% to 34% in younger women experience dyspareunia (Van Lankveld et al, 2010). The most common treatment for vaginismus is sequential dilation of the vaginal opening with progressively larger cones, psychotherapy and medications to reduce the pain and anxiety. At times clients and health care professionals may be unaware of the biological processes that influence the muscle contraction and relaxation of the pelvic floor. Success is more likely if the client works in harmony with the biological processes while practicing self-healing and treatment protocols. These biological processes, described at the end of the blog significantly affects the opening of vestibule and vagina are: 1) feeling safe, 2) inhale during insertion to relax the pelvic floor, 3) stretch very, very slowly to avoid triggering the stretch reflex, and 4) being sexual aroused.
Successful case report: There is hope to resolve pain and vaginismus
Yesterday my husband and I had sex in the first time, after two and a half years of “trying”. Why did it take so long? Well, the doctor said “vaginismus”, the psychologist said “fear”, the physiotherapist said “constricted muscles”, and friends said “just relax, drink some wine and it will happen”.
Sex was always a weird, scary, complicated – and above all, painful – world to me. It may have started in high school: like many other teens, I thought a lot about sex and masturbated almost every night. Masturbation was a good feeling followed by tons of bad feelings – guilt, shame, and feeling disgusting. One of the ideas I had to accept, later in my progress, is that ‘feeling good is a good thing’. It is normal, permitted and even important and healthy.
My first experience, at age 20, was short, very painful, and without any love or even affection. He was…. well, not for me. And I was…. well, naive and with very little knowledge about my body. The experiences that came after that, with other guys, were frustrating. Neither of them knew how to handle the pain that sex caused me, and I didn’t know what to do.
The first gynecologist said that everything is fine and I just need to relax. No need to say I left her clinic very angry and in pain. The second gynecologist was the first one to give it a name: “vaginismus”. He said that there are some solutions to the problem: anesthetic ointment, physiotherapy (“which is rarely helps”, according to his optimistic view..), and if these won’t work “we will start thinking of surgery, which is very painful and you don’t want to go there”. Oh, I certainly didn’t want to go there.
After talking to a friend whose sister had the same problem, I started seeing a great physiotherapist who was an expert in these problems. She used a vaginal biofeedback sensor, that measured muscles’ tonus inside the vagina. My homework were 30 constrictions every day, plus working with “dilators” – plastic cones comes in 6 sizes, starting from a size of a small finger, to a size of a penis.
At this point I was already in a relationship with my husband, who was understanding, calm and most important – very patient. To be honest, we both never thought it would take so long. Practicing was annoying and painful, and I found myself thinking a lot “is it worth it?”. After a while, I felt that the physical practice is not enough, and I need a “psychological breakthrough”. So I stopped practicing and started seeing a psychologist, for about a half a year. We processed my past experiences, examined the thoughts and beliefs I had about sex, and that way we released some of the tension that was shrinking my body.
The next step was to continue practicing with the dilators, but honestly – I had no motivation. My husband and I had great sex without the actual penetration, and I didn’t want the painful practice again. Fortunately, I participated in a short course given by Professor Erik Peper, about biofeedback therapy. In his lecture he described a young woman, who suffered from vulvodynia, a problem that is a bit similar to vaginismus (Peper et al, 2015; See: https://peperperspective.com/2015/09/25/resolving-pelvic-floor-pain-a-case-report/). She learned how to relax her body and deal with the pain, and finally she had sex – and even enjoyed it! I was inspired.
Erik Peper gave me a very important advice: breathing in. Apparently, we can relax the muscles and open the vagina better while inhaling, instead of exhaling – as I tried before. During exhalation the pelvic floor tightens and goes upward while during inhalation the pelvic floor descends and relaxes especially when sitting up (Peper et al, 2016). He advised me to give myself a few minutes with the dilator, and in every inhale – imagine the area opening and insert the dilator a few millimeters. I started practicing again, but in a sitting position, which I found more comfortable and less painful. I advanced to the biggest dilator within a few weeks, and had a just little pain – sometimes without any pain at all. The most important thing I understood was not to be afraid of the pain. The fear is what made me even more tensed, and tension brings pain. Then, my husband and I started practicing with “the real thing”, very slowly and gently, trying to find the best position and angle for us. Finally, we did it. And it was a great feeling.
The biological factors that affect the relaxation/contraction of the pelvic floor and vaginal opening are:
Feeling safe and hopeful. When threatened, scared, anticipate pain, and worry, our body triggers a defense reaction. In this flexor response, labeled by Thomas Hanna as the Red Light Reflex, the body curls up in defense to protect itself which includes the shoulders to round, the chest to be depressed, the legs pressing together, the pelvic floor to tighten and the head to jut forward (Hanna, 2004). This is the natural response of fear, anxiety, prolonged stress or negative depressive thinking.
Before beginning to work on vaginismus, feel safe. This means accepting what is, accepting that it is not your fault, and that there are no demands for performance. It also means not anticipating that it will be again painful because with each anticipation the pelvic floor tends to tightens. Read the chapter on vaginismus in Dr. Lonnie Barbach’s book, For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy (Barbach, 1983).
Inhale during insertion to relax the pelvic floor and vaginal opening. This instruction is seldom taught because in most instances, we have been taught to exhale while relaxing. Exhaling while relaxing is true for most muscles; however, it is different for the pelvic floor. When inhalation occurs, the pelvic floor descends and relaxes. During exhalation the pelvic floor tightens and ascends to support breathing and push the diaphragm upward to exhale the air. Be sure to allow the abdomen to expand during inhalation without lifting the chest and allow the abdomen to constrict during exhalation as if inhalation fills the balloon in the abdomen and exhalation deflates the balloon (for detailed instructions see Peper et al, 2016). Do not inhale by lifting and expanding your chest which often occurs during gasping and and fear. It tends to tighten and lift the pelvic floor.
Experience the connection between diaphragmatic breathing and pelvic floor movement in the following practice.
While sitting upright make a hissing noise as the air escapes with pressure between your lips. As you are exhaling feel, your abdomen and your anus tightening. During the inhalation let your abdomen expand and feel how your anus descends and pelvic floor relaxes. With practice this will become easier.
Stretch very, very slowly to avoid triggering the stretch reflex. When a muscle is rapidly stretched, it triggers an automatic stretch reflex which causes the muscle to contract. This innate response occurs to avoid damaging the muscle by over stretching. The stretch reflex is also triggered by pain and puts a brake on the stretching. Always use a lubricant when practicing by yourself or with a partner. Practice inserting larger and larger diameter dilaters into the vagina. Start with a very small diameter and progress to a larger diameter. These can be different diameter cones, your finger, or other objects. Remember to inhale and feel the pelvic floor descending as you insert the probe or finger. If you feel discomfort/pain, stop pushing, keep breathing, relax your shoulders, relax your hips, legs, and toes and do not push inward and upward again until the discomfort has faded out.
Feel sexually aroused by allowing enough foreplay. When sexually aroused the tissue is more lubricated and may stretch easier. Continue to use a good lubricant.
Putting it all together.
When you feel safe, practice slow diaphragmatic breathing and be aware of the pelvic floor relaxing and descending during inhalation and contracting and going up during exhalation. When practicing stretching the opening with cones or your finger, go very, very slow. Only apply pressure of insertion during the mid-phase of inhalation, then wait during exhalation and then again insert slight more during the next inhalation. When you experience pain, relax your shoulders, keep breathing for four or five breaths till the pain subsides, then push very little during the next inhalation. Go much slower and with more tenderness.
Be patient. Explain to your partner that your body and mind need time to adjust to new feelings. However, don’t stop having sex – you can have great sex without penetration. Practice both alone and with your partner; together find the best angle and rate. Use different lubricants to check out what is best for you. Any little progress is getting you closer to having an enjoyable sex. I recommend watching this TED video of Emily Nagoski explaining the “dual control model” and practicing as she suggests: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HILY0wWBlBM
Finally, practice the exercises developed by Dr. Lonnie Barbach, who as one of the first co-directors of clinical training at the University of California San Francisco, Human Sexuality Program, created the women’s pre-orgasmic group treatment program. They are superbly described in her two books, For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy, and For yourself: The fulfillment of female sexuality, and are a must read for anyone desiring to increase sexual fulfillment and joy (Barbach, 2000; 1983).
Barbach, L. (1983). For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy. New York: Anchor
Barbach, L. (2000). For yourself: The fulfillment of female sexuality. New York: Berkley.
BarLewis, R. W., Fugl‐Meyer, K. S., Bosch, R., Fugl‐Meyer, A. R., Laumann, E. O., Lizza, E., & Martin‐Morales, A. (2004). Epidemiology/risk factors of sexual dysfunction. The journal of sexual medicine, 1(1), 35-39. http://www.jsm.jsexmed.org/article/S1743-6095(15)30062-X/fulltext
Hanna, T. (2004). Somatics: Reawakening the mind’s control of movement, flexibility, and health. Boston: Da Capo Press.
Martinez Aranda, P. & Peper, E. (2015). The healing of vulvodynia from a client’s perspective. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-healing-of-vulvodynia-from-the-client-perspective-2015-06-15.pdf
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/1-abdominal-semg-feedback-published.pdf
Peper, E., Martinez Aranda, P., & Moss, E. (2015). Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report. Biofeedback. 43(2), 103-109. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-vulvodynia-treated-with-biofeedback-published.pdf
Ter Kuile, M. M., Both, S., & van Lankveld, J. J. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for sexual dysfunctions in women. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3), 595-610. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45090259_Cognitive_Behavioral_Therapy_for_Sexual_Dysfunctions_in_Women
Van Lankveld, J. J., Granot, M., Weijmar Schultz, W., Binik, Y. M., Wesselmann, U., Pukall, C. F., . Achtrari, C. (2010). Women’s sexual pain disorders. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(1pt2), 615-631. http://www.jsm.jsexmed.org/article/S1743-6095(15)32867-8/fulltext
*We thank Dr. Lonnie Barbach for her helpful feedback and support. Written collaboratively with Tal Cohen, biofeedback therapist (Israel) and Erik Peper.
It was late in the afternoon and I was tired. A knock on my office door. One of my students came in and started to read to me from a card. “I want to thank you for all your help in my self-healing project…I didn’t know the improvements were possible for me in a span of 5 weeks…. I thank you so much for encouraging and supporting me…. I have taken back control of myself and continue to make new discoveries about my identity and find my own happiness and fulfillment… Thank you so much.”
I was deeply touched and my eyes started to fill with tears. At that moment, I felt so appreciated. We hugged. My tiredness disappeared and I felt at peace.
In a world where we are constantly bombarded by negative, fearful stories and images, we forget that our response to these stories impacts our health. When people watch fear eliciting videos, their heart rate increases and their whole body responds with a defense reaction as if they are personally being threatened (Kreibig, Wilhelm, Roth, & Gross, 2007). Afterwards, we may continue to interpret and react to new stimuli as if they are the same as what happened in the video. For example, while watching a horror movie, we may hold our breath, perspire and feel our heart racing; however, when we leave the theatre and walk down the street by ourselves, we continue to be afraid and react to stimuli as if what happened in video will now happen to us.
When we feel threatened, our body responds to defend itself. It reduces the blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract where digestion is taking place and sends it to large muscles so that we can run and fight. When threatened, most of our resources shifted to the processes that promote survival while withdrawing it from processes that do not lead to immediate survival such as digestion or regeneration (Sapolsky, 2004). From an evolutionary perspective, why spent resources to heal yourself, enhance your immune system or digest your food when you will become someone else’s lunch!
The more we feel threatened, the more we will interpret the events around us negatively. We become more stressed, defensive, and pessimistic. If this response occurs frequently, it contributes to increased morbidity and mortality. We may not be in control of external or personal event; however, we may be able to learn how to change our reactions to these events. It is our reactions and interpretations of the event that contributes to our ongoing stress responses. The stressor can be labeled as crisis or opportunity.
Mobilize your own healing when you take charge. When 92 students as part of a class at San Francisco State University practiced self-healing skill, most reported significant improvements in their health as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Average self-reported improvement after practicing self-healing skills for at least four weeks. (Reproduced with permission from Tseng, Abili, Peper, & Harvey, 2016).
A strategy that many students used was to interrupt their cascading automatic negative reactions. The moment they became aware of their negative thought and body slumping, they interrupted the process and practiced a very short relaxation or meditation technique.
Implement what the students have done by taking charge of your stress responses and depressive thoughts by 1) beginning the day with a relaxation technique, Relax Body-Mind, 2) interrupting the automatic response to stressors with a rapid stress reduction technique, Breathe and be a Tree, and 3) increasing vitality by the practice, Share Gratitude (Gorter & Peper, 2011).
Relax Body-Mind to start the day*
- Lie down or sit and close your eyes. During the practice if your attention wanders, just bring it back to that part of the body you are asked to tighten or let go.
- Wrinkle your face for ten seconds while continuing to breathe. Let go and relax for ten seconds.
- Bring your hands to your face with the fingers touching the forehead while continuing to breathe. While exhaling, pull your fingers down your face so that you feel your jaw being pulled down and relaxing. Drop your hands to your lap. Feel the sensations in your face and your fingers for ten seconds.
- Make a fist with your hands and lift them slightly up from your lap while continuing to breathe. Feel the sensations of tension in your hands, arms and shoulders for ten seconds. Let go and relax by allowing the arms to drop to your lap and relax. Feel the sensations change in your hands, arms and shoulders for ten seconds.
- Tighten your buttocks and flex your ankles so that the toes are reaching upwards to your knees. Hold for ten seconds while continuing to breathe. Let go and relax for ten seconds.
- Take a big breath while slightly arching your back away from the bed ore chair and expand your stomach while keeping your arms, neck, buttocks and legs relaxed. Hold the breath for twenty seconds. Exhale and let your back relax while allowing the breathing to continue evenly while sensing your body’s contact with the bed or chair for twenty seconds. Repeat three times.
- Gently shake your arms and legs for ten seconds while continuing to breathe. Let go and relax. Feel the tingling sensations in your arms and legs for 20 seconds.
- Evoke a past positive memory where you felt at peace and nurtured.
- Stretch and get up. Know you have done the first self-healing step of the day.
*Be gentle to yourself and stop the tightening or breath holding if it feels uncomfortable.
Breathe and be a Tree to dissipate stress and focus on growth
- Look at a tall tree and realize that you are like a tree that is rooted in the ground and reaching upward to the light. It continues to grow even though it has been buffeted by storms.
- When you become aware of being stressed, exhale slowly and inhale so that your stomach expands, the while slowly exhaling, look upward to the top of a real or imagined tree, admire the upper branches and leaves that are reaching towards the light and smile.
- Remember that even though you started to respond to a stressor, the stressor will pass just like storms battering the tree. By breathing and looking upward, accept what happened and know you are growing just like the tree.
- Think of someone who did something for you that impacted your life in a positive direction and whom you never properly thanked. This could be a neighbor, teacher, friend, parent, or other family members.
- Write a 300-word testimonial describing specifically what the person did and how it positively impacted you and changed the course of your life.
- Arrange an actual face-to-face meeting with the person. Tell them you would like to see him/her. If they are far away, arrange a Skype call where you can actually see and hear him/her. Do not do it by email or texting.
- Meet with the person and read the testimonial to her/him.
- It may seem awkward to read the testimonial, after you have done it, you will feel closer and more deeply connected to the person. Moreover, the person to whom you read the testimonial, will usually feel deeply touched. Both your hearts will open.
Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting cancer: A nontoxic approach to treatment. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 205-207.
Kreibig, S. D., Wilhelm, F. H., Roth, W. T., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Cardiovascular, electrodermal, and respiratory response patterns to fear‐and sadness‐inducing films. Psychophysiology, 44(5), 787-806.Kreibig, Sylvia D., Frank H. Wilhelm, Walton T. Roth, and James J. Gross. “Cardiovascular, electrodermal, and respiratory response patterns to fear‐and sadness‐inducing films.” Psychophysiology 44, no. 5 (2007): 787-806.
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Owl Books
Seligman, M. (2014). The new era of positive psychology. Ted Talk. Retrieved, December 10, 2016. https://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology
Tseng, C., Abili, R., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2016). Reducing Acne-Stress and an integrated self-healing approach. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback, 4(4), 445.)
After raising my shoulders and then relaxing it, I felt relaxed. I was totally surprised that the actual muscle tension recorded with surface electromyographic (SEMG) still showed tension. Only when I gave myself the second instruction, relax even more, that my SEMG activity decreased.
In our experiences, we (Vietta E. Wilson and Erik Peper, 2014) have observed that muscle tension often does not decrease completely after a person is instructed to relax. The complete relaxation only occurs after the second instruction, relax more, let go, drop, or feel the heaviness of gravity. The person is totally unaware that after the first relaxation their muscless have not totally relaxed. Their physiology does not match their perception (Peper et, 2010; Whatmore & Kohli, 1974). The low level of muscle tension appears more prevalent in people who are have a history of muscle stiffness or pain, or in athletes whose coaches report they look ‘tight.’ It is only after the second command, relax and release even more, that the individual notices a change and experiences a deeper relaxation.
The usefulness of giving a second instruction, relax more, after the first instruction, relax, is illustrated below by the surface electromyographic (SEMG) recording from the upper left and right trapezius muscle of a 68 year old male with chronic back pain. While sitting upright without experiencing any pain, he was instructed to lift his shoulders, briefly hold the tension, and then relax (Sella, 1997; Peper et al, 2008). When the SEMG of the trapezius muscles did not decrease to the relaxed state, he was asked to relax more as is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. SEMG recordings of the left and right upper trapezius when the client was asked to lift his shoulders, hold, relax, and relax more. Only after the second instruction did the muscle tension decrease to the relaxed baseline level. Reprinted from Wilson and Peper, 2014.
Although the subject felt that he was relaxed after the first relaxation instruction, he continued to hold a low level of muscle tension. We have observed this same process in hundreds of clients and students while teaching SEMG guided relaxation and progressive muscle relaxation.
For numerous people, even the second commands to relax even more is not sufficient for the SEMG to show muscle relaxation and for them to ‘feel’ or know when they are totally relaxed. These individuals may benefit from SEMG biofeedback to identify and quantify the degree of muscle tension. With this information the person can make the invisible muscle contractions ‘ visible,’ the un-felt tension ‘felt,’ and thus develop awareness and control (Peper et al, 2014).
- Instruct people to relax after tightening and then repeat the instruction to relax even more.
- Use surface electromyography to confirm whether the person’s subjective experience of being muscularly relaxed corresponds to the actual physiological SEMG recording.
- Use the SEMG biofeedback to train the person to increase awareness and learn relaxation (Peper et al, 2014).
- Read the complete article from which this blog was adapted: Wilson, E. & Peper, E. (2014). Clinical Tip: Relax and Relax More. 42(4), 163-164.
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M., & Shaffer, F. (2014). Making the Unaware Aware-Surface electromyography to unmask tension and teach awareness. Biofeedback. 42(1), 16-23.
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Tallard, M., & Takebayashi, N. (2010). Surface electromyographic biofeedback to optimize performance in daily life: Improving physical fitness and health at the worksite. Japanese Journal of Biofeedback Research, 37(1), 19-28.
Peper, E., Tylova, H., Gibney, K.H., Harvey, R., & Combatalade, D. (2008). Biofeedback mastery-An experiential teaching and self-training manual. Wheat Ridge, CO: AAPB.
*This blogpost is adapted from, Wilson, E. & Peper, E. (2014). Clinical tip: Relax and relax more. Biofeedback. 42(4), 163-164.
“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.
“You only have to think to lift the hand and the muscles react.”
“I did not realize that muscle tension occurred without visible movement.”
“I was shocked that I was unaware of my muscle activity—The EMG went up before I felt anything.”
“Just anticipating the thought of the lifting of my hand increased the EMG numbers.”
“After training I could feel the muscle tension and it was one third lower than before I started.”
-Workshop participants after working with SEMG feedback
Many people are totally unaware that they are tightening their muscles and continuously holding slight tension until they experience stiffness or pain. This covert low-level muscle tension can occur in any muscle and has been labeled dysponesis, namely, misplaced and misdirected efforts (from the Greek: dys = bad; ponos = effort, work, or energy) (Whatmore & Kohli, 1974; Harvey & Peper, 2012). This chronic covert tension is a significant contributor to numerous disorders that range from neck, shoulder, and back pain to headaches and exhaustion and can easily be observed in people working at the computer.
While mousing and during data entry, most people are unaware that they are slightly tightening their shoulder muscles. One can often see this low level chronic tension when a person continuously lifts an index finger in anticipation of clicking the mouse or bends the wrist and lifts the fingers away from the keyboard while mousing with the other hand as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Lifting the hand without any awareness while mousing with the other hand (from Peper et al, 2014)
People may hold a position for a long time without being aware that they are contracting their muscles. They are focusing on their task performance. They are “captured by the screen” – until discomfort and pain occur. Only after they experience discomfort or pain, do they change position. Factors that contribute to this apparent lack of somatic awareness include:
- Being captured by the task. People are so focused upon performing a task that they are unaware of their dysfunctional body position, which eventually will cause discomfort.
- Institutionalized powerlessness. People accept the external environment as unchangeable. They cannot conceive new options and do not attempt to adjust the environment to fit it to themselves.
- Lack of somatic awareness and training. People are unaware of their own low levels of somatic and muscle tension.
Being Captured By the Task
People often want to perform a task well and they focus their attention upon correctly performing the task. They forget to check whether their body position is optimized for the task. Only after the body position becomes uncomfortable and interferes with task performance, do they become aware. At this point, the discomfort has often transformed into pain or illness.
This process of immediately focusing on task performance is easily observed when people are assigned to perform a new task. For example, you can ask people who are sitting in chairs arranged by row to form discussion groups to share information with the individuals in front or behind them. Some will physically lift and rotate their chair to be comfortable, while others will rotate their body without awareness that this twisted position increases physical discomfort. As instructors, we often photograph the participants as they are performing their tasks as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Workshop participants rotating their bodies or chairs to perform the group exercise (from Peper et al, 2014).
Although there are many strategies to teach participants awareness of covert tension, our recent published article, Making the Unaware Aware-Surface Electromyography to Unmask Tension and Teach Awareness,describes a simple biofeedback approach to teach awareness and control of residual muscle contraction. Almost all the subjects can rapidly learn to increase their recognition of minimal muscle tension as shown in figure 3.
Figure 3. Measurement of forearm extensor muscle awareness of minimum muscle tension before and after feedback training (from Peper et al, 2014).
This study showed that participants were initially unaware of covert tension and that they could quickly learn to increase their sensitivity of muscle tension and reduce this tension within a short time period. Surface electromyograpy (SEMG) provides an objective (third person) perspective of what is actually occurring inside the body and is more accurate than a person’s own perception (first person perspective). The SEMG feedback (numbers and graphs) learning experience was a powerful tool to shift participants’ illness beliefs and encourage them to actively participate in their own self-improvement. It demonstrated that: 1) they were unaware of low tension levels, and 2) they could learn to increase their awareness with SEMG feedback.
The participants became aware that covert tension could contribute to their discomfort and would inhibit regeneration. In some cases, they observed that merely anticipating the task caused an increase in muscle tension. Finally, they realized that if they could be aware during the day of the covert tension, they could identify the situation that triggered the response and also lower the muscle tension.
For detailed methodology and clinical application, see the published article, Peper,E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M., & Shaffer, F. (2014). Making the Unaware Aware-Surface Electromyography to Unmask Tension and Teach Awareness. Biofeedback, 42(1), 16-23.
Harvey, E. & Peper, E. (2012). I thought I was relaxed: The use of SEMG biofeedback for training awareness and control. In W. A. Edmonds, & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.),Case studiesin applied psychophysiology: Neurofeedback and biofeedback treatments foradvances inhuman performance. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 144-159.
Focus On Possibilities, Not On Limitations. Youtube interviews of Erik Peper, PhD, by Larry Berkelhammer, PhDPosted: March 18, 2013
Focus On Possibilities, Not On Limitations
This interview with psychophysiologist Dr. Erik Peper reveals self-healing secrets used by yogis for thousands of years. Mind-training methods used by yogis like Jack Schwarz were explored. The underlying message throughout the discussion was that suffering and even actual tissue damage are profoundly influenced by both our negative and our positive attributions. The methods by which yogis have learned to self-heal is available to all of us who are willing to assiduously adopt a daily practice. It is very clear that when our attention goes to our pain or other symptoms, our suffering and even tissue damage worsens. When we focus all our attention on what we want rather than on what we are afraid of, we achieve a healthier, more positive, and more robust level of healing. We suffer when we have negative expectancies and we reduce suffering when we focus our attention on positive expectancies. We can train the mind to fully experience sensations without negative attributions. For the vast majority of us, we have far greater potential than we believe we have. Biofeedback, concentration practices, mindfulness practices, and other yogic practices allow us to condition ourselves to concentrate on the present moment, rather than on our negative expectancies, limitations, attributions, and fears.
Belief Becomes Biology
Dr. Larry Berkelhammer speaks with Dr. Erik Peper about the connection of our beliefs and our health.
Physical fitness promotes health. For one person it may be walking, for another jogging, bicycling or dancing. Increase the joy and pleasure of movement. In most cases about 20 minutes of continued activity is enough to keep in shape and regenerate. When the urge to watch TV or just to crash occurs, do some of the movement—you will gain energy. The exercises this article are are developed to reduce discomfort, increase flexibility and improve health. Practice them throughout the day, especially before the signals of pain or discomfort occur. First read over the General Concepts Underlying the Exercises and then explore the various practices.
General Concepts Underlying the Exercises
While practicing the strength and stretch exercises, always remember to breathe. Exercises should be performed slowly, gently and playfully. If pain or discomfort occurs, STOP. Please consult your health care provider if you have any medical condition which could be affected by exercise.
Perform the practices in a playful, exploratory manner. Ask yourself: “What is happening?” and “How do I feel different during and after the practice?” Practice with awareness and passive attention. Remember, Pain, No gain — Pain discourages practice. Pain and the anticipation of pain usually induce bracing which is the opposite of relaxation and letting go. In addition, many of our movements are conditioned and without knowing we hold our breath and tighten our shoulders when we perform an exercise. Explore ways to keep breathing and thereby inhibit the startle/orienting/flight response embedded and conditioned with the movements. For example, continue to breathe and relax instead of holding your breath and tightening your shoulders when you initially look at something or perform a task.
Learn to reduce the automatic and unnecessary tightening of muscles not needed for the performance of the task. As you do an exercise, continuously, check your body and explore how to relax muscles that are not needed for the actual exercise. Become your own instructor in the same way that a yoga teacher reminds you to exhale when you are doing an asana (yoga pose). If you are unsure whether you are tightening, initially look another person doing the exercise to observe their bracing and breath holding patterns. Ask them to observe you and give feedback. In many cases, the more others are involved the easier it is to do a practice.
It is often helpful to perform the practice in a group. Encourage your whole work unit to take breaks and exercise together. Usually it is much easier to do something together, especially when you are not motivated—use social support to help you do your practices.
Problems with neck, back and shoulders
The number one overall work-related complaint is the back pain and this is also true for many people who work at the computer. In many cases there are correlations between backache and stress, immobility, and lack of regeneration. Back pain is often blamed on disk problems which may be aggravated by chronic tension that may have some psychological factors. When you experience discomfort, explore some of the following questions:
- Is there something for which I am spineless?
- Who or what is the pain in my neck or back?
- What is the weight I am carrying?
- Am I rigid and not willing to be flexible?
- What negative emotion, such as anger or resentment, needs to resolved?
Be willing to act on whatever answers you observe. Back and neck pain is often significantly reduced after emotional conflicts are resolved (see the book by John Sarno, MD., Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection). The best treatment is prevention, emotional resolution, and physical movement. Allow your back to relax and move episodically. Allow tensions to dissipate and explore the physical, psychological and social burdens you carry. To loosen your neck practice the following exercise.
Free your neck and shoulders
This is a slightly complicated, but very effective process. You may want to ask a friend or co-worker to read the following instructions to you.
Pretest: Push away from the keyboard. Sit at the edge of the chair with your knees bent at approximately 90 degrees and your feet flat on the floor about shoulder width apart. Do the movements slowly. Do NOT push yourself if you feel discomfort. Be gentle with yourself.
Look to the right and gently turn your head and body as far as you can go to the right. When you have gone as far as you can comfortably, look at the furthest spot on the wall and remember that spot. Gently rotate your head and body back to center. Close your eyes and relax.
Movement practice: Reach up with your right hand; pass it over the top of your head and hold on to your left ear. Then gently bend to the right lowering the elbow towards the floor. Slowly straighten up. Repeat a few times, feeling as if you are a sapling flexing in the breeze as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Illustration of side ways bending with hand holding ear.
Observe what your body is doing as it bends and comes back up to center. Notice the movements in your ribs, back and neck. Then drop your arm to your lap and relax. Make sure you continue to breathe diaphragmatically throughout the exercise.
Reach up with your left hand, pass it over the top of your head and hold on to your right ear. Repeat as above, this time bending to the right.
Reach up with your right hand and pass it over the top of your head, now holding onto your left ear. Then look to the right with your eyes and rotate your head to the right as if you are looking behind you. Return to center and repeat the movement a few times. Then drop your arm to your lap and relax for a few breaths as shown in Figure 2. Figure 2. Illustration of rotational movement with hand holding ear.
Repeat the same rotating motion of your head to the right, except that now your eyes look to the left. Repeat this a few times, then drop your arm to your lap and relax for a few breaths.
Repeat the exercise except reach up with your left hand and pass it over the top of your head, and hold on to your right ear. Then look to the left with your eyes and rotate your head to the left as if you are looking behind you. Return to center and repeat a few times. Then drop your arms to your lap and relax for a few breaths.
Repeat the same rotating motion of your head to the left, except that your eyes look to the right. Repeat this a few times, then drop your arm to your lap and relax for a few breaths.
Post test: look to the right and gently turn your head and body as far as you can go. When you cannot go any further, look at that point on the wall. Gently rotate your head back to center, close your eyes, relax and notice the relaxing feelings in your neck, shoulders and back.
Did you rotate further than at the beginning of the exercise? More than 95% of participants report rotating significantly further as compared to the pretest.
For additional exercises on how to loosen your neck, shoulders, back, arms, hands, and legs, click on the link for the article, Improve health with movement: There is life after five or look at the somatic relaxation practices in part 3 of our book, Fighting Cancer-A Nontoxic Approach to Treatment.
 Adapted from a demonstration by Sharon Keane and developed by Ilana Rubenfeld