Inhale, 2, 3, 4.
Exhale, 5, 6, 7, 8.
I have not been doing this very well lately.
It’s been more:
I have been so happy to have energy and motivation, even in prime Fall-Slide season (*Nic note: Fall Slide= when the season changes from summer to fall, and the change in weather causes all of your carefully crafted Chronic progress to slide off a cliff.), that I have been neglecting the very thing that got me here:
Yep, it’s a Hulk day, kids, because I’m talking about Biofeedback! (To read all about how I’ve designated my medical team as different members of the Avengers, check out Avengers Assemble: https://iamchronicallywell.com/2014/07/21/avengers-assemble/ )
First of all, what is Biofeedback?
The simplest way to explain it is that Biofeedback is a training program in which you “train” your body to become less reactive to things like stress, pain and tension. This is achieved through breathing practice, with occasional guided meditation or fun “brain games” designed to help you use your brain to change your bodily reactions. In order to track your progress, a patient is hooked up to a monitor, and their breathing rate, heart beat, body temperature, and skin conductants (sweating) are recorded. It’s non-invasive, and deceptively simple.
You just breathe, right?
There are different types of breathing. First, there is the kind of breathing that most people are used to, but is not the best way to do it: Chest breathing. Put your hand on your heart, Pledge of Allegiance-style. Does it move up and down? It probably does. This is stressful breathing. Don’t feel bad, we all get stuck there at some point or another.
What this type of breathing means is that you aren’t taking full or deep breaths. Your breathing rate is probably pretty quick, too. When you breathe this way, it’s a signal to your physiological system that you are about to be attacked, thanks to the flight or fight reaction we all have hard-wired. If you were running away from a sabertooth tiger right now, this kind of quick-pace breathing would be helpful, as it signals a release of running away/fighting hormones like adrenaline, which you would need in a sabertooth tiger situation.
Except, there are no sabertooth tigers (your boss doesn’t count!) and you don’t need to jump up and fight to the death or run for your life right this second when you are, say, writing a blog post (at least I would hope not!).
If you are breathing this way, day in and day out, with no legit-sabertooth-reason, you are stressing your body, BIG TIME. Excess adrenaline, cortisol, and all their other little stress-hormone friends need something to do. If you are not having a caveman moment, they have to find something else to do to occupy their time. This is when they decide things like your immune system would be fun to beat up instead.
I prefer my immune system unbullied, thank you very much.
So, I have been working with a biofeedback therapist for a while now, to learn to breathe correctly and allow my body to find its natural calm again.
If you are looking for a review of biofeedback and need a quick recommendation here it is:
It works, it works, it works. Do it, do it, do it. You will be SO GLAD you did.
What does breathing correctly look like?
Put your hand on your chest again. Now, put the other one on your abdomen, at right about or just above your belly button. That’s where your diaphragm is. Focus on breathing into your belly button. THAT hand should move, not the one on your chest.
Congratulations! You’ve just practiced abdominal/diaphagmatic breathing, the least stressful way to breathe.
Feels weird right?
Of course it does! You’ve been breathing wrong since you had to take the SAT in high school! Or longer, who knows?
If you have access to a baby (Wow, THAT sounds weird. I mean if you know one, or are babysitting or have any other legitimate reason to be around an infant), watch how they breathe, especially when they sleep. Those cute little tummies are just plugging away, puffing up on the inhales and emptying out on the exhales.
Babies do not have excess adrenaline problems.
If you work with a biofeedback therapist, while you are re-learning how to breathe correctly, you will be able to see, through the power of just a few wires stuck to you and then plugged into a computer, how much of a difference changing your breath makes to your physiological system.
For instance, after a few minutes and a guided meditation (more on that in a minute), my body temperature rises (a good thing- blood vessel constriction is a symptom of tension and makes you cold in your extremities), my heart rate slows, and my sweaty palms get ahold of themselves and ease up on the clamminess.
Now, do you need a monitor to show you that? Not necessarily, if you are extraordinarily self-disciplined and incredibly in-tune with your body rhythms. But if that’s you, I don’t think you really need biofeedback in the first place… It is so helpful and motivating to see the power you have to change how you feel, all lit up on an easy to read monitor.
You see, as a Chronic, it is far too simple to lose all sense of control over yourself.
Why wouldn’t it be? It feels like this illness or illnesses (don’t they always seem to come with a plus-one?) just showed up one day and took over. Your body quickly becomes this thing, separate from You, that doesn’t listen to what you say, think, wish, or desire. If you let that type of thinking take root in your brain (I have no control, ever!), it’s going to be a long hard road for you, Friend (said the wise, old Voice of Experience).
For me, biofeedback reminded me in a big, bold way that I still get to have power here. It may not feel like it all the time, but I do still wield some control. I can choose at any time to slow myself down, breathe correctly, and therefore influence how my body is acting.
Oh, so wonderful a feeling!
And if it’s so wonderful, you’d think I’d be doing it all the time, right?
I may have kinda-sorta fallen off the wagon…
I’ve been distracted!
I’ve had so much going on!
My breathing practice has gone from a strict two- 20 minute sessions daily to a sporadic couple of times a week.
I have gotten caught up in the wonderful results, and have forgotten what got me here in the first place.
Because of that, I have been a tiny bit– really, just a teensy, weensy, bit– Hulk-ish lately.
Terribly sorry, Mom/Nick Fury…
So here I am, Internet, with a declaration of re-dedication to my breathing practice. I could use more Bruce Banner flashes of genius in my life, and I just can’t have them if the Other Guy is hanging out more often than not.
I have some really great guided mediation CD’s that I am dusting off. My favorite is one where you imagine yourself walking on a beach, calm and peaceful, timing your breathing to the gentle rolling of the waves…See, I’m more relaxed just thinking of it!
Guided mediation can be really beneficial, because our brains have a weird habit of believing everything we tell them. For instance, if you imagine that, oh, I don’t know, if you were to end up in an enclosed space, you might get stuck, and all the air would drain out of the room, and it would be awful and you wouldn’t be able to breathe, and, and…well, you might end up a pinch claustrophobic. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, if you imagine that, even if you do end up in an enclosed space, you’d have plenty of air and it would be pleasant, cozy even, and not at all awful, then you might end up working through your claustrophobia issues (#TrueStory). Your brain just needs to know which situation to believe.
So, guided mediation CD, check.
My personal meditation space is ready, check.
Now all that’s left to do is breathe…
Our brains are powerful things, Chronics. It’s important that we remember to use them 🙂