Fear, Stress, Pain, and Breathing!
“Running away from fear is fear; fighting pain is pain; trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain. The thinker has no other form than his thought.”
- Alan Watts
Not many people are aware of the fact that the dreaded feeling of fear, chronic stress, and pain usually go hand-in-hand. In fact, the very root cause of the last two can be traced back to some sort of pre-existing fear that haunts the thoughts of a person. But how exactly? Keep on reading to find out!
The Relationship Between Fear & Stress
First, I would like to remind you that like stress, optimal levels of fear are necessary to ensure the safety and sanity of human beings. In fact, stress itself is one of the by-products of fear. The emotion starts as a chain reaction in the brain, usually when a person is subjected to unknown or unusual environments, such that it makes them feel highly vulnerable (for example, walking down an alley completely alone at night or lying in the operation theatre surrounded by doctors, ready to undergo a surgery). At this point, the body starts producing stress hormones which create a fight-or-flight response – the feeling when you can’t decide whether to face the situation at hand or just flee from it! The person may start to breathe rapidly and their heart rate may go off the charts.
The stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, etc.), when produced in excess, can leave devastating effects on our overall health, such as digestive problems, vitamin deficiencies, inflammation, etc. One of these effects is the change in our pain threshold. People who lead stressful lifestyles tend to develop chronic pain because of this reason. Therefore, going back to what I said in the very beginning and by connecting all the dots, it’s safe to say that if a person remains under fear all the time and develops chronic stress, it can upset their ability to overcome physical pain. Thankfully, there is one simple trick (literally as easy as breathing) that can solve this problem or prevent it from occurring in the first place…breathing!
Now, I will highlight how the simple act of breathing can help you overcome fear and stressful situations. Let’s start!
Overcoming Fear, Chronic Stress, and Pain with Breathing
In the immortal words of Fritz Perls, the pioneer of the Gestalt therapy, “Fear is excitement without the breath.” Perls argued that instead of merely talking about their fears, people should instead be subjected to them or made to face them in a controlled environment. This concept was publicly accepted and adopted by psychiatric communities across the globe. He put great emphasis on controlled breathing and considered it the ultimate cure for stress, anxiety, and, of course, fear.
On average, a human being takes 12-18 breaths per minute. Interestingly enough, experts have noted that out of the long list of physical symptoms of stress, the most dangerous one is subconsciously reducing the number of breaths one takes per minute. This might not make sense at first since we discussed earlier that highly stressful situations can make a person breathe faster. However, some people tend to forget to breathe for many seconds when confronted with such circumstances. This can lead to other complications of the heart, lungs, and other vital organs/components of the human body, ultimately affecting the pain threshold.
Breathing Techniques to Follow
But what is the right way to breathe? Well, for starters, you have to be completely aware of how you are breathing. The rest will come easily! Without further ado, here are some tried-and-tested breathing techniques that can help lower the heart rate, stress levels, and even pain to some extent.
Yawning is a healthy process which is triggered when we are tired or simply bored and do not breathe as deeply as we should. This shortage of oxygen prompts us to take a long, deep breath (yawn), replenishing our body with that much-needed O2 and increasing our concentration. But what if we yawned on purpose? It is actually considered a great breathing technique by many experts and fitness gurus. Breathe fresh air in deeply through your nostrils, expanding your abdomen as much as possible and filling your lungs with oxygen, hold for a few seconds, and then exhale through your mouth just like you would while yawning. You can repeat this exercise a few times during the day, for as long as you like.
Ensuring that you breathe the right way depends a lot on how focused you are. We tend to get so lost in the worries and stresses of our lives that we stop paying attention to essential procedures, including something as trivial and vital as breathing! Therefore, another great breathing tip (or technique) to keep in mind is maintaining your focus. Designate a few minutes every other hour to just sit back, close your eyes, and simply focus on your breaths. Feel the air just flowing into your lungs as you inhale deeply. Hold it for a few seconds and focus on your heart being gently squeezed. Then let it go slowly, and feel the tension leaving your chest. Consistent repetition will eventually turn this exercise into a (healthy) subconscious habit, which will help you significantly in lowering your stress levels, overcoming fear, and eventually decreasing your pain.
Equilibrium Between Inhales & Exhales
People who smoke or have any other conditions that prevent them from breathing deeply without coughing or experiencing some sort of discomfort usually have problems holding their breath. To overcome this problem, they should try to equalise the duration of their inhales and exhales. By starting small and, hopefully, quitting other bad habits such as smoking, they’d be able to gradually extend the duration of their breaths.
Out of the many possible culprits behind chronic pain, prolonged stress and being subjected to fearful situations frequently can be easily overlooked. Fortunately, by practising simple deep-breathing techniques and rewarding your body with a little extra oxygen, you can not only overcome stress, but also your pain. The final piece of advice that I can give to you is to make necessary changes in your lifestyle and try to avoid stressful situations at all costs. I wish you all the best!