Breathing With Chronic Pain & Illness

Storms. Cold weather. Fluctuating temperatures. Too much activity. Too little activity. Bright lights. Loud noises.

Body aches. Headaches. Brain Fog. Weakness. Joint Pain. Muscle Spasms. High Fevers. Chills.

What do you experience during flare-ups? What triggers them? How often?

I have been dealing with chronic pain since I was a teenager. My only guess is that it developed after a nasty bout of Mono I had in the 7th grade. I found yoga when I was in high school and realized pretty quickly that it helped me feel better.

I don’t claim that yoga is a cure-all or a cure-anything for that matter, but I can say pretty confidently that, when done safely and appropriately, it can help you feel better. Which is all any of us can really ask for, chronic pain or not.

Chronic Pain Tidbits

  1. Chronic Pain is a mind-body experience.

    We may have pain in our back, but that pain is perceived in your mind. Pain is shaped not only by physical illness or injury, but also thoughts, emotions, stress, and learning. When we do yoga, we can work mindfully and compassionately with ourselves to understand and breathe and care for our pain rather than leaping away from it or approaching it with anger. Taken from “Yoga for Pain Relief” by Kelly McGonigal: “There is a study that found that anger can trigger tension in the deep muscles of the back (Burns 2006). This means that your emotions may be as likely to aggravate an old injury as lifting something heavy or overdoing it at the gym. On the other hand, a meditation on forgiveness has been shown to reduce chronic back pain and improve physical function (Carson teacher al. 2005).”

  2. Chronic Pain is like an overprotective mother.

    Pain exists to protect us. It’s a response to potential threat. It forces you to pay attention to what hurts at that moment so that you can protect yourself- i.e. if you put your hand on a hot stove, pain will alert you to remove your hand to keep you from burning yourself more. This response is “acute pain.” The pain matches the seriousness of the threat.

    Chronic pain occurs when the body becomes more sensitive to threat. Signals can be sent to the brain regardless of the seriousness of perceived danger. The brain can interpret situations to require pain responses that are out of proportion to the actual threat. Sometimes the pain can come from a true threat, and sometimes it does not. It comes from a deep seated, learned response that comes from a loving place, but has become too overbearing. The mind and body are trying to protect you from… everything. Your nervous system starts to just wait for the pain to get worse. You might find yourself doing the same thing if you are anything like me!

  3. You don’t need a diagnosis to start a healing process.

    I have seen countless doctors over countless terrible bouts of illness, weakness, pain, you name it. I have never been given a clear diagnosis. It’s frustrating. It can feel hopeless. However, there are things that we can do without knowing a name of what we are suffering from. Breathing, meditation, and gentle movements/ yoga can be powerful tools that contribute to feeling better. Not a cure, but relief and empowerment.

  4. Neuroplasticity. A curse AND a blessing.

    Past pain makes you more sensitive to future pain. Your nervous system learns things pretty quickly. It becomes more and more skilled at finding “threats” and delivering the experience of pain. We start waiting for a flare up, which is stressful, which makes it worse!

    The blessing here is… neuroplasticity! Your nervous system learns things pretty quickly. Why can’t it practice taking in what feels good? Why can’t it practice relaxation? Why can’t it practice feeling supported and loved? This is where we come in- we can implement practices to teach the nervous system how to feel better. We can’t cure ourselves with yoga and it doesn’t make all pain disappear, but we can play a role in our own pain management with these mindfulness and loving-kindness practices.

If you feel pain- I am here with you. It’s not fun and it can feel isolating. It toys with your psyche. I can tell you that yoga has helped me on my path, and I’d love to share more about how it can help you on yours! Join the 4 week Yoga For Chronic Pain Series starting 7/16 OR sign up for a couple of private sessions to learn tools that can help you heal.

Tiffany Coombs