Erik Peper, PhD, BCB, Jillian Cosby, and Monica Almendras
In at the beginning of 2021, I broke my L3 vertebra during a motor cycle accident and underwent two surgeries in which surgeons replaced my shattered L3 with a metal “cage” (looks like a spring) and fused this cage to the L4 and L2 vertebrae with bars. I also broke both sides of my jaw and fractured my left shoulder. I felt so overwhelmed and totally discouraged by the ongoing pain. A year later, after doing the self-healing project as part of the university class assignment, I feel so much better all the time, stopped taking all prescription pain medications and eliminated the sharp pains in my back. This project has taught me that I have the skill set needed to be whole and healthy. –J.C., 28-year-old college student
Chronic pain is defined as a pain that persist or recurs for more than 3 months (Treede et al., 2019). It is exhausting and often associated with reduced quality of life and increased medical costs (Yong, Mullins, & Bhattacharyya, 2022). Pain and depression co-exacerbate physical and psychological symptoms and can lead to hopelessness (IsHak, 2018; Von Korff & Simon, 1996). To go to bed with pain and anticipate that pain is waiting for you as you wake up is often debilitating. One in five American adults experience chronic pain most frequently in back, hip, knee or foot (Yong, Mullins, & Bhattacharyya, 2022). Patients are often prescribed analgesic medications (“pain killers”) to reduce pain. Although, the analgesic medications can be effective in the short term to reduce pain, the efficacy is marginal for relieving chronic pain (Eriksen et al., 2006; Tan, & Jensen, 2007). Recent research by Parisien and colleagues (2022) reported that anti-inflammatory drugs were associated with increased risk of persistent pain. This suggest that anti-inflammatory treatments might have negative effects on pain duration. In addition, the long-term medication use is a major contributor to opioid epidemic and increased pain sensitivity (NIH– NIDA, 2022; Higgins, Smith, & Matthews, 2019; Koop, 2020). Pain can often be successfully treated with a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates non-pharmacologic approaches. These include exercise, acceptance and commitment therapy, as well as hypnosis (Warraich, 2022). This paper reports how self-healing strategies as taught as part of an undergraduate university class can be an effective approach to reduce the experience of chronic pain and improve health.
Each semester, about 100 to 150 junior and senior college students at San Francisco State University enroll in a holistic health class that focused on ‘whole-person’ Holistic Health curriculum. The class includes an assessment of complementary medicine and holistic health. It is based upon the premise that mind/emotions affect body and body affect mind/emotions that Green, Green & Walters (1970) called the psychophysiological principle.
“Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental emotional state, conscious or unconscious, and conversely, every change in the mental emotional state, conscious or unconscious, is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state.”
The didactic components of the class includes the psychobiology of stress, the role of posture, psychophysiology of respiration, lifestyle and other health factors, reframing internal language, guided and self-healing imagery. 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).
The self-practices during the last six weeks of the class focus on identifying, developing and implementing a self-healing project to optimize their personal health. The self-healing project can range from simple life style changes to reducing chronic pain. Each student identifies their project such as increasing physical activity, eating a healthy diet and reducing sugar and junk food, stopping vaping/smoking, reducing anxiety or depression, stopping hair pulling, reducing headaches, decreasing ezema, or back pain, etc. At the end of the semester, 80% or more of the students report significant reduction in symptoms (Peper, Sato-Perry, & Gibney, 2003; Peper, Lin, Harvey, Gilbert, Gubbala, Ratkovich, & Fletcher, 2014; Peper, Miceli, & Harvey, 2016; Peper, Harvey, Cuellar, & Membrila, 2022). During the last five semesters, 13 percent of the students focused reducing pain (e.g., migraines, neck and shoulder pain, upper or lower back pain, knee pain, wrist pain, and abdominal pain). The students successfully improved their symptoms an average of 8.8 on a scale from 0 (No benefit) to 10 (total benefit/improvement). The success for improving their symptoms correlates 0.63 with their commitment and persistence to the project (Peper, Amendras, Heinz, & Harvey, in prep).
The purposes of this paper is to describe a case example how a student with severe back pain reduced her symptoms and eliminated medication by implementing an integrated self-healing process as part of a class assignment and offer recommendations how this could be useful for others.
Participant: A 28-year-old female student (J.C.) who on January 28, 2021 broke her L3 vertebra in a motor cycle accident. She underwent two surgeries in which surgeons replaced her shattered L3 with a metal “cage” (which she describes as looking like a spring) and fused this cage to the L2 and L4 vertebrae with bars. She also broke both sides of her jaw and fractured her left shoulder. More than a year later, at the beginning of the self-healing project, she continue to take 5-10 mgs of Baclofen and 300 mgs of Gabapentin three times a day to reduce pain.
Goal of the self-healing project: To decrease the sharp pain/discomfort in her lower back that resulted from the motor cycle accident and, although not explicitly listed, to decrease the pain medications.
During the last six weeks of the 2022 Spring semester, the student implemented her self-healing practices for her personal project which consisted of the following steps.
1. To create a self-healing plan that included exploring the advantage and disadvantage of her illness.
2. To create a step-by-step plan with specific goals to relief her tension and pain in her lower back. This practice allowed her to quantify her problem and the solutions. Like so many people with chronic pain, she focused on the problem and feelings (physical and emotional) associated with the pain. As a result, she often feel hopeless and worried that it would not change.
3. To observe and evaluate when her pain sensations changed. She recognized that she automatically anticipated and focused on the pain and anxiety whenever she needed to bend down into a squat. She realized that she had been anticipating pain even before she began to squat. This showed that she needed to focus on healing the movement of this area of her body.
Through her detailed observations, she realized that her previous general rating of back pain could be separated into muscle tightness/stiffness and pain. With this realization, she changed the way she was recording her pain level. She changed it from “pain level” into into two categories: tightness and sharp pains.
4. To ask questions of her unconscious through a guided practice of accessing an inner guide through imagery (For detailed instructions, see Peper, Gibney, & Holt, 2002, pages 197-206). In this self-guided imagery the person relaxes and imagines being in a special healing place where you felt calm, safe and secure. Then as you relaxed, you become aware of another being (wise one or guide) approaching you (the being can be a person, animal, light, spirit, etc.). The being is wise and knows you well. In your mind, you ask this being or guide questions such as, “What do I need to do to assist in my own healing?” Then you wait and listen for an answer. The answer may take many forms such as in words, a pictures, a sense of knowing, or it may come later in dreams or in other forms. When students are assigned this practice for a week, almost all report experiencing some form of guide and many find the answers meaningful for their self-healing project.
Through this imagery of the inner guide script, she connected with her higher self and the wise one told her to “Wait.” This connecting with the wise one was key in accepting that the project was not as daunting as she initially thought. She realized that pain was not going to be forever in her future. She also interpreted that as reminder to have patience with herself. Change takes practice, time and practice such as she previously experienced while correcting her posture to manage her emotions and edit her negative thoughts into positive ones (Peper, Harvey, Cuellar, & Membrila, 2022). Whenever she would have pain or feel discouraged because of external circumstances, she would remind herself of three things:
A. I need to have patience with myself.
B. I have all the healing tools inside me and I am learning to use them.
C. If I do not make time for my wellness, I’ll be forced to make time for my illness.
5. To practice self-healing imagery as described by Peper, Gibney, & Holt (2002) and adapted from the work by Dr. Martin Rossman (Rossman, 2000). Imagery can be the communication channel between the conscious/voluntary and the unconscious/autonomic/involuntary nervous system (Bressler, 2005; Hadjibalassi et al, 2018; Rossman, 2019). It appears to act as the template and post-hypnotic suggestion to implement behavior change and may offer insight and ways to mobilize the self-healing potential (Battino, 2020). Imagery is dynamic and changeable.
The process of self-healing imagery consists of three parts.
- To inspect the problem and create a graphic illustration of the problem as it is experienced at that moment of time.
- To illustrate graphically how that area/problem would look when being completely well/whole or disappeared.
- To create a self-healing process by which the problem would become transformed into health (Peper, Gibney & Holt, 2002, pp. 217-236). the process focuses on what the person can do for themselves; namely, each time they became aware of, anticipated, or felt the problem, they would focus on the self-healing process. It provideshope; since, the person now focuses on the healing of the problem and becoming well.
The drawings of inspection of the pain and problem she experienced at that moment of time are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Illustration of the problem of the pain. Thorns dug deep, muscles tight, and frozen vertebrates grinding.
The resolution of the problem and being well/whole are illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Resolution of the problem in which her muscles are warm, full of blood, free of thorns, relaxed and flexible and being whole happy and healthy in which her spine is warm, her muscles are warm, her back is flexible and full of movement.
Although she utilized the first image of the muscles warm, full of blood, free of thorns and the muscles relaxed and flexible, her second image of her fully being healed was inspired through a religious statue of Yemaya that she had in her room (Yemaya is a major water spirit from the Yoruba religion Santeria and Orisha of the seas and protector of women). Each time she saw the statue, she thought of the image of herself fully healed and embodying the spirit Orisha. Therefore, this image remained important to her all the time.
Her healing imagery process by which she transforms the image of inspecting of the problem to being totally well are illustrated in Figure 3.
Figure 3. The healing process: The sun’s warm fingers thaw my muscles, lubricate my vertebra, thorns fall out, and blood returns.
For five weeks as she implemented her self-healing project by creating a self-healing plan, asking questions of her unconscious, drawing her self-healing imagery. She also incorporated previously learned skills from the first part of the semester such diaphragmatic breathing, hand warming, shifting slouching to upright posture, and changing language. Initially she paired hand warming with the self-healing imagery and she could feel an increase in body warmth each time she practiced the imagery. She practiced the self-healing imagery as an in-depth daily practice and throughout the day when she became aware of her back as described in one of her log entries.
I repeated the same steps as the day prior today. I did my practice in the early morning but focused on the details of the slowed down movements of the sun’s hands. I saw them as they stretched out to my back, passed through my skin, wrapped around my muscles, and began to warm them. I focused on this image and tried to see, in realistic detail, my muscles with a little ice still on them, feeling hard through and through, the sun’s glowing yellow-orange fingers wrapped around my muscles. I imaged the thorns still in my muscles, though far fewer than when I started, and then I imaged the yellow-orange glow start to seep out from the sun’s palms and fingers and spread over my muscles. I imaged the tendons developing as the muscle tissue thawed and relaxed, the red of the muscle brightened, the ice on and within my muscles started to melt, and the condensation formed as it ran down into collected droplets at the bottom of my muscles. I imaged the thorns lose their grip and fall out, one at a time, in tandem with the droplets falling. I continued this process and imaged my muscles expanding with warmth and relaxation as they stayed engulfed in the warmth of the sun.
At the end of my practice, I did a small stretch session. I felt extremely refreshed and ready for yet another extremely busy day between internship, graduation, and school. I would say I felt warm and relaxed all the way into the afternoon, about 6 hours after my practice. This was by far the most detailed and impactful imagery practice I have had.
The self-healing imagery practice provided me with the ability to conceptualize more than my problem as it showed me the tools to (and the importance of) conceptualizing my solution, both the tool and end result.
Pain and tightness decreased and she stopped her medication by the third week as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. Self-rating of sharp pains and tightness during the self-healing project.
At the 14-week follow-up, she has continued to improve, experiences minimal discomfort, and no longer takes medication. As she stated, I was so incredibly shocked how early on [in the project] I was able to stop taking pain medications that I had already taken every day for over a year.
This individual case example provides hope that health can be improved when shifting the focus from pain and discomfort to focusing on actively participating in the self-healing process. As she wrote, The lesson was self- empowerment in regard to my health. I brought comfort to my back. There is metal in my back for the rest of my life and this is something I have accepted. I used to look at that as a horrible thing to have to handle forever. I now look at it as a beautiful contraption that has allowed me to walk across a graduation stage despite having literally shattered a vertebra. I am reintegrating these traumatized parts of my body back into a whole health state of mind and body. Doctors did not do this, surgeries did not, PT didn’t and neither did pain medications. MY body and MY mind did it. I did this.
Besides the self-healing imagery and acting upon the information she received from the asking questions from the unconscious there were many other factors contributed to her healing. These included the semester long self-practices and mastery of different stress management techniques, learning how stress impacts health and what can the person can do to self-regulate, as well as being introduced to the many case examples and research studies that suggested healing could be possible even in cases where it seemed impossible.
The other foundational components that was part of the class teachings included attending the weekly classes session and completing the assign homework practices. These covered discussion about placebo/nocebo, possibilities and examples of self-healing with visualization, the role of nutrition, psychophysiology of stress and factors are associated with healthy aging across cultures. The asynchronous assignments investigated factors that promoted or inhibited health and the role of hope. The discussions pointed out that not everyone may return to health; however, they can always be whole. For example, if a person loses a limb, the limb will not regrow. The healing process includes acceptance and creating new goals to achieve and live a meaningful life.
The possibility that students could benefit by implementing the different skills and concepts taught in the class were illustrated by sharing previous students’ successes in reversing disorders such as hair pulling, anxiety, psoriasis, and pain. In addition, students were assigned to watch and comment on videos of people who had overcome serious illness. These included Janine Shepherd’s 2012 TED talk, A broken body isn’t a broken person, and Dr. Terry Wahl’s 2011 TEDxIowaCity talk, Minding your mitochondria. Janine Shepard shared how she recovered from a very serious accident in which she became paralyzed to becoming an aecrobatic pilot instructor while Dr. Terry Wahl shares how she he used diet to cure her MS and get out of her wheelchair (Shepherd, 2012; Wahl, 2011). Other assignments included watching Madhu Anziani’s presentation, Healing from paralysis-Music (toning) to activate health, in which he discussed his recovery from being a quadriplegic to becoming an inspirational musician (Anziani, & Peper, 2021). The students as read and commented on student case examples of reversing acid reflux, irritable bowel and chronic headaches (Peper, Mason, & Huey, 2017a; Peper, Mason, & Huey, 2017b; Peper, 2018; Peper et al., 2020; Peper, Covell, & Matzembacker, 2021; Peper, 2022).
Although self-healing imagery appears to be the major component that facilitated the healing, it cannot be separated from the many other concepts and practices that may have contributed. For example, the previous practices of learning slow diaphragmatic breathing and hand warming may have allowed the imagery to become a real kinesthetic experience. In addition, by seeing how other students overcame chronic disorders, the class provided a framework to mobilize one’s health.
Lessons extracted from this case example that others may be able use to mobilize health.
- Take action to shifts from being hopeless and powerless to becoming empowered and active agent in the healing process.
- Change personal beliefs through experiential practices and storytelling that provides a framework that healing and improvement are possible.
- Teach the person self-regulation skills such as slower breathing, muscle relaxation, cognitive internal language changes, hand warming by which the person experiences changes.
- Provide believable role models who shared their struggle in overcoming traumatic injury, watch inspirational talks, and share previous clients or students’ self-reports who had previously improved.
- Transform the problem from global description into behavioral specific parts. For example, being depressed is a global statement and too big to work on. Breaking the global concept into specific behaviors such as, my energy is too low to do exercise or I have negative thoughts, would provide specific interventions to work on such as, increasing exercise or changing thoughts. In JC’s case, she changed the general rating of pain into ratings of muscle tightness and sharp pains. This provided the bases for strategies to relax and warm her muscles.
- Focus on what you can do at that moment versus focusing on the past, what happened, who caused it, or blaming yourself and others. Explore and ask what you now can do now to support your healing process and reframe the problem as a new opportunity for growth and development.
- Practice, practice, and practice with a childlike exploratory attitude. Focus on the small positive benefits that occur as a result of the practices. It is not mindless practice; it is practice while being present and being gentle with yourself. Do not discard very small changes. The benefits accrue as you practice more and more, just many people have experienced when learning to play a musical instrument or mastering a sport. Even though many participants think that practicing 15 minutes a day is enough, it usually takes much more time. Reflect on how a baby learns to walk or climb. The toddler practices day-long and takes naps to regenerate and grow. When the toddler is not yet successful in walking or climbing, it does not give up or interpret it as failure or blaming himself that he cannot do it, it just means more practice.
- Have external reminders to evoke the self-healing practices. In JC’s case, the small statue of Yemaya in her room was the reminder. It reminded her to thinks of the image of herself fully healed each time she saw it.
- Guide yourself through the wise one imagery, ask yourself a question and listen and act on the intuitional answers.
- Develop a self-healing imagery process that transforms the dysfunction to health or wholeness. Often the person only perceives the limitations and focusses on describing the problem. Instead, acknowledge, accept what was and is, and focus on developing a process to promote healing. What many people do not realize that if they think/imagine how their injury/illness was caused, it may reactivate and recreate the initial trauma. This can be illustrated through imagery. When we think or imagine something, it changes our physiology. For example, when one imagines eating a lemon, many people will salivate. The image affects physiology. Thus, focus on processes that support healing.
- While practicing the imagery, experience it as if it is real and feel it happening inside yourself. Many people initially find this challenging as they see it outside themselves. One way to increase the “felt sense” is to incorporate more body involvement such as acting out the imagery with hand and body movements.
- When having a relapse, remind yourself to keep going. Every morning is the beginning of a new day, do each practices anew. In addition, reflect of something that was challenging in the past but that you successfully overcame. Focus on that success. As JC wrote, I was also successful in that I gave myself slack and reminded myself that relapses will happen and what matters more is the steps I take to move forward.
- Make your healing a priority that means doing it often during the day. Allow the self-healing imagery and process to run in the back of the head all the time just as a worry can be present in the background. So often people practice for a few minutes (which is great and better than not practicing at all); however, at other times during the day they are captured by their worry, negative thoughts or focus on the limitations of the disorder. When a person focuses on the limitations, it may interrupt the self-healing process. The analogy we often use is that the healing process is similar to healing from a small cut in the skin. Initially a scab forms and eventually the scab falls off and the skin is healed. On the other hand, if you keep moving the skin or pick on the scab, healing is much slower. By focusing on the limitations and past visualization of the injury, self-healing is reduced. This is similar to removing the scab before the skin has healed. As JC stated, “If you don’t make time for your wellness, you’ll be forced to make time for your illness” was 100% a motivating factor in my success.
- Explore resources for providers and people living with pain. See Dr. Rachel Zoffness website which provides a trove of high quality articles, books, videos, apps, and podcasts. https://www.zoffness.com/resources
In summary, we do not know the limits of self-healing; however, this case example illustrates that by implementing self-healing strategies health and recovery occurred. As JC wrote:
To have broken a vertebra in my back and experience all the injuries that came with the accident when I already did not have the strongest mind-body connection was incredibly intense and really heartbreaking and discouraging in my life. And, that made things difficult because I was not able to 100% focus on my healing because I felt so overwhelmed by the feeling of discouragement that I felt. Experiencing this self-healing project, seeing the imagery that helped me not just feel so much better all the time but be able to stop taking all prescription pain medications and eliminate the sharp pains in my back has taught me that I have the skill set needed to be whole and healthy.
Watch the interview will Jillian Cosby inwhich she describes her self-healing process.
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Are you curious to know if there is anything you can do to help prevent cancer?
Are you searching for ways to support your healing process and your immune system?
If yes, watch the invited lecture presented October 14, 2017, at the Caribbean Active Aging Congress, Oranjestad, Aruba, http://www.caacaruba.com
Erik Peper, Lauren Mason and Cindy Huey
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
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