Does all that slow and metered breathing during prenatal lessons or during painful events really help get us through the pain, or is it all in our heads?
Slow, purposeful breathing helps the mind slow down and focus. When the mind is calm, the body is calm. New research finds that slow, deep breathing actually reduces the physical sensation of pain, but it depends on if the differences in the lengths of your inhales and exhales.
Participants in this study from the U.S. Association for The Study of Pain were instructed to breathe four different ways. The first method was to breathe with no purposeful pacing of breath; the second was breathing with the intent of pacing but was left up to the participant to decide what was steady for them; the third was breathing at a constant of 6 breaths per minute and most of the focus on long inhales; and the final method was breathing at a constant of 6 breaths per minute with the focus on longer exhales.
The participants were exposed to a thermal tolerance test to induce pain at three temperatures, while their vital signs were monitored for any changes. Changes that were likely to be associated with the sensation of pain would include blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration changes.
All of the participants, except those in the group who were left breathe as they wished, rated lower pain intensity levels. There was no difference between those who were in the groups that were trying to pace their breathing without any instruction and those who were instructed to breathe 6 times per minute with a longer inhale.
The real difference was seen in the group who was instructed to breathe 6 times per minute with a focus on a longer exhale. This breathing technique reduced more pain than any of the other methods; and the changes were seen physiologically with better blood pressure. Though the full mechanisms behind why this occurred weren’t explored in the study, it does make a lot of sense as I recall that one of the best techniques for stress management and to lower anxiety involves a 7-11 breathing pattern.
To follow the 7-11 technique, inhale for 7 seconds and exhale for 11 seconds. The key is in the exhale. It is a great way to calm your mind down; and from what we’ve seen with this study, it seems to work on a deeper level to also reduce pain.
Jafari, Hassan, et al. “Can Slow Deep Breathing Reduce Pain? An Experimental Study Exploring Mechanisms.” Journal of Pain, 21 Jan. 2020, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2019.12.010.