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  • Writer's pictureJoan Rothchild Hardin

Using the Breath for Physical & Emotional Pain

Source: Pinterest

We all know that pain, both physical and emotional, is unavoidable in our lives. And we also know that emotional pain often produces physical pain and physical pain can produce emotional pain. Then there’s the sort of physical or psychic pain that’s mysterious, hurting apparently for no reason at all. Some people have an easier time with physical pain, which often feels more understandable and manageable than mental anguish.

What our pills-and-surgery-focused culture doesn’t do a particularly good job with is helping us ward off or ease both kinds of pain.

This post is about using the breath for both physical and emotional pain. I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s a highly effective approach.


Source: Clinical Pain Advisor

Evidence indicates that pain perception may be attenuated when an individual performs cognitive tasks or is distracted.

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently found that our ability to use our thoughts to modulate perceptions of pain utilizes a completely separate brain pathway than the pathway that sends physical pain signals to the brain.

Sensations of physical pain are sent via nerves to a number of regions in the brain which register where the pain is occurring and its intensity, mostly to the anterior cingulate cortex.

This study discovered a second pathway which can mediate the PERCEPTION of pain. This pathway involves areas of the brain associated with emotion and motivation, such as the medial prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens. When these regions become activated, we experience pain as less acute.

Source: Psychology Today

The brains of 33 study participants were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they received painful heat stimuli on their arms. (This sounds quite unpleasant. Fortunately, all participants had provided informed consent.)

“During the first scan, the participants were asked to clear their minds and not think of anything in particular while being subjected to the painful heat on their arms.

“In the second scan, the participants were asked to imagine that the burning heat was actually damaging their skin. This mindset was found to increase perceptions of pain.

“In the final scan, participants were asked to imagine that the heat was actually a welcome sensation on an extremely cold day—this explanatory style was found to decrease the perceived experience of the pain.

“When the brain scans were compared the pathways for experiencing physical pain remained the same across all three scenarios, regardless of how the participants rated their pain experience. However, the breakthrough discovery was that the researchers discovered a second brain pathway that changed in intensity depending on the type of thoughts, or “cognitive self-regulation” used by participants.”

– (Bergland, 2015) & (Woo et al, 2015)


Source: American Pregnancy Association

Contractions during heavy labor are generally considered to be pretty high up on the pain scale. I was very fortunate to be pregnant in the mid 1970’s in California when Lamaze techniques were popular for managing labor pains. A principal tenet of Lamaze childbirth is that controlled breathing enhances relaxation and decreases perception of pain. (Lothian, 2011)

Toward the end of my pregnancy, I took a Lamaze class to learn these specific breathing techniques and experienced intense pain only once during labor and delivery – when I got distracted by something and lost control of my breathing during one contraction toward the end of labor. I generally have a pretty high tolerance for physical pain and would rate the pain during that one contraction as an 8 1/2 out of 10 on the Pain Scale.

Learning how to use my breath to relax during labor and distract my mind from perceiving the pain has had the additional benefit of helping me weather other physical pain since then – and has been very handy for dealing with psychic pain too.


John E. Sarno, MD, is a retired professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, New York University Medical Center and an expert on how to stop musculo-skeletal pain without drugs or surgeries. He is the author of The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders, and several other best selling books on the connection between emotions and physical pain – the psychosomatic process.

In his long career treating people with chronic pain, Sarno observed that they often preferred suffering with chronic physical pain to dealing with their unresolved emotional pain. He developed a treatment approach of educating his patients about this connection and helping them to figure out what was so deeply upsetting to them that they were afraid to know it consciously. Once they were able to identify their chronic physical symptoms as “distractions” serving to keep these deeply unconscious emotional issues repressed, their physical symptoms no longer served any useful purpose and stopped.



Here are some of my favorite breathing techniques that are good for reducing the experience of pain. They calm the body and keep you in your calm center instead of focusing on the pain. Since pain isn’t experienced as painful unless it registers in your brain, it’s worth playing around with these so they’ll be available to you when you need them.

If you start to feel light headed during any of these breathing techniques, that just means you’re breathing out a lot more than you’re breathing in. Practicing evening out your in and out breaths will fix it.


3-part yoga breathing (dirga pranayama) is a basic technique that lets you breathe fully and easily. It’s very good for feeling calm and empowered.


Ocean Breath (Ujayii in Sanskrit) is my all time, everyday favorite for yoga and life – including dealing with physical and psychic pain.


Breathing with pauses at the top and bottom of each breath is very calming to the body. If you also divide your breath to pause in the middle of inhales and exhales, it’s even more effective. You can add more pauses, dividing your inhales and exhales into 2, 3, 4, 5 pauses in addition to the pauses at the top and bottom of each breath. Gradually, you’ll be able to extend the pauses, which is where the calming happens.

Having to use your mind to count keeps it from thinking about anything else, including registering pain. This video will give you the idea of how to do the pauses.


Dr Weill’s 4-7-8 well known breathing technique is especially helpful for falling asleep.


Bee Breath (Brahmari in Sanskrit) is another of my favorites. Try it while lying on your back in bed when your brain is generating thoughts that are interfering with your falling asleep.


This is very helpful for all kinds of pain, acute and chronic. You can change the language to suit your situation.

Pairing this with a breathing technique of your choice is sublime.


I also like this breathing app that teaches the body how to breathe properly. It works on iPhone, Android, Nook, and Mac. You get to choose the amount of time you want to practice breathing with this app, the speed that works for you, and whether you want music or silence while it’s running.

Universal Breathing: Pranayama



Bergland, C. (2015). Neuroscientists Identify How Mindset Alters Pain Perceptions: Experiencing pain involves multiple brain pathways and can be self-regulated. Psychology Today. See:

Fossam, H. (2016). The Influence of Cognitive Processes on Pain Perception. See:

Lothian, J.A. (2011). Lamaze Breathing: What Every Pregnant Woman Needs to Know. Journal of Perinatal Education, 118-120. See:

Woo, C.W. et al. (2015). Distinct Brain Systems Mediate the Effects of Nociceptive Input and Self-Regulation on Pain. PLOS Biology. See:

© Copyright 2017. Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.

DISCLAIMER:  Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


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