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Breathing and Meditation for Stress and Chronic Pain

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Between the global pandemic, continued racial injustices, and political upheaval, stress and anxiety seem to be built into every interaction these days. The result isn’t just mental discomfort. Stress is also leading contributor to chronic pain. The good news for yoga practitioners: Developing resilience through meditation and mindfulness practices can help you deal with stress in the moment and ongoing aches and pain. 

“Stress is a physiological and psychological response to a challenging event,” says neuroscientist, mental performance coach and yoga teacher Daya Grant PhD. Acute stress triggers two main systems in the brain: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), or ‘fight or flight,’ response, and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. 

When you’re faced with an acute stress event—say, a traffic jam or getting into an argument with your partner—the body’s response is beneficial and motivates you to act. Chronic stress, however, has a harmful effect. When the SNS and HPA are regularly activated, it leads to an imbalance of inflammatory molecules that contribute to chronic pain. 

Breathing into Your Fight or Flight Response

Fortunately, relaxation techniques including breathing practices counter these effects. “Research shows these practices reduce activation of the SNS and HPA and control the release of inflammatory molecules,” says Grant. If you practice them regularly, they strengthen the brain’s ability to return to balance during stressful circumstances.

Dr. Grant says two beneficial breathing techniques are 4-7-8 breathing (inhale for 4; hold for 7; exhale for 8) and alternate nostril breathing, nadi shodhana. These techniques reduce pain directly by improving blood flow, which delivers more oxygen to the body. They also reduce pain indirectly by stimulating the vagus nerve, which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and alters one’s perception of the pain. Think of the PNS as the brake pedal and the SNS as the gas pedal. 

Try it: Practice 4-7-8 breathing or alternate nostril breathing for 5 minutes each day to reset and calm the mind and body. 

Visualizing Your Stress Can Help It Disappear

Another powerful tool for combatting stress and chronic pain is visualization. Imagining the body working effectively without pain or picturing a positive emotional state can slow respiration, decrease blood pressure, and minimize pain signals, all of which contribute to reducing chronic pain. The key to maximizing the long-term benefits of these techniques is consistency, so try tagging them on to existing routines, such as before getting ready in the morning or just prior to retiring in the evening says Grant. 

Calming mental imagery and visualization techniques—like picturing gentle ocean waves or forest trees swaying in the wind—can also help mitigate the stress response. The key to cultivating calm through imagery: engage as many senses as possible. Imagine the breeze on your face, the smell of the salt water, or the gentle squish of mud under your feet. Connect to the call of sea birds or the colors of a sunset through the trees. As with meditation, consistency is key to reaping the biggest benefit, says Grant. 

Try it: Spend 2–3 minutes in visualization when you wake up in the morning or before you go to bed. 

Anusha Wijeyakumar is a Wellness Consultant at Hoag Hospital in Orange County, California, and author of Meditation with Intention. 

From Yoga Journal