How to Breathe Through Pain

I got bitch-slapped by 2017 on her way out.

It was a rough year, but I had made it. Things were on a positive trajectory and I was feeling hopeful.  But then, right when I thought I was on the homestretch…..

(Yes, I know I’m splicing together random metaphors).

It was like that scene from Million Dollar Baby.  You know, where Hillary Swank’s character dominates in the boxing match, and as she goes to the side of the ring to soak up her glory, her opponent throws an ugly illegal punch that pretty much ruins everything.  Oh what the heck, watch it here and you’ll get the idea.

I’m obviously not the only one that has been thrown what feels like a totally unfair and uncalled-for blow, but no matter how intellectually we approach these things, they can still hurt like freaking hell. And sometimes the hardest thing to do is to force yourself to get back up again and to keep breathing in and out, and to believe that life is benevolent and good.

I’m halfway through nursing school, and in that time I have gained an even greater appreciation for the way our bodies work.  The intricate balancing system of chemicals, blood gases, and pH to maintain optimal functioning is fascinating.  Even when we are diseased or injured or offer them crappy energy supplies, our bodies fight valiantly to keep us moving.   It’s quite an elegant set-up, really.

One idea that is really pushed on us in school and clinicals is the importance of open airways and proper breathing. When in doubt, the best action is always to check a person’s airway to make sure nothing is obstructing their breathing. And second, when someone has had surgery, even if it’s just a C-section, or a lung illness, the patient needs to perform incentive spirometry.

Incentive spirometry is slow, forced breathing to help fully open the air sacs deep within the lungs and help a person regain as much lung capacity as possible.  The problem is, when you’re in pain, you don’t want to breathe deeply.  You want to take short, shallow breaths and use as few muscles in the process as possible.  When you’re in intense pain, you also likely feel completely bone-tired.

Can’t everyone just leave me alone, God dammit? Breathing hurts and my body hurts and I’m exhausted – I just want to lie here in my misery and not move!

Forcing yourself to breathe in these medical situations is exactly what needs to be done for the body to restore itself. It may hurt like hell to use that stupid incentive spirometer (and I know from experience, having had three C-sections and my gall-bladder removed), but pushing through that pain to help your lungs open up and allow for optimal gas exchange is paramount. Without going into too much detail,  gas exchange (oxygen and carbon dioxide) is crucial…for proper cell metabolism, for maintaining a narrow-bounded blood pH, for minimizing anxiety and confusion…the list goes on.

Emotional pain can cause the same kinds of breathing problems as physical pain. I doubt I’m unique in this-when my heart is broken or I’m panicking or I’m descending into the depths of despair (thank you for that sentiment, Anne of Green Gables), my chest physically hurts and I find myself taking those short, shallow breaths. When I realize it and attempt to breathe deeply out of my diaphragm, the emotional pain seems to intensify rather than abate, and it takes all the courage I have to let my lungs expand.

Failure to breathe deeply from emotional pain can lead to some of the same negative side effects caused by physical pain. But what is worse than just failing to breathe deeply is when we stop breathing and hold our breath. This, however, is our tendency.

Because breathing deeply or breathing at all during these times feels like you’re endorsing or condoning what is being done to you or the situation you find yourself in. Breathing is necessary to bring in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide, and those gases are necessary for life, and life doesn’t feel like a good thing right now because it is what brought you this pain in the first place. Our natural reflex is to want to close ourselves off from breathing, pain, and all that life brings because we want to protect ourselves. How could a rational human being sanely accept and embrace the hard things that come our way, uninvited?

We unconsciously think that if we hold perfectly still, the pain will go away. But this isn’t the way it works. When we hold still, the pain remains trapped within us. It can’t lessen because it has nowhere to go.  And then, the lack of life movement within us accompanied by this body of pain, creates bitterness and resentment and scar tissue on our hearts.  We become small, immovable, hard, unchangeable.

Breath creates space inside of us for new things to happen. It provides a vehicle for the pain to start moving, within us and then eventually, out of us.  To ruin the moment here, I’m thinking of patients who have tracheostomies.  Their trachs and lungs get all bound up with phlegm and mucus, but if they can get a good, long, deep breath in and cough hard, all the gunk in their lungs is loosened up (or potentially flies across the room at you and you’d better duck fast) and they feel better.

This is where spirituality beat science and modern healthcare to the table. Mystics and contemplatives have known for ages that to heal and to get through pain, we have to keep moving and we have to keep breathing deeply. There is no other way to convalesce if we want to live.

So many spiritual practices focus on the breath. Watch your in-breath, watch your out-breath. Count to five on your inhalation, count to eight on your exhalation. Place your hand on your abdomen and feel your diaphragm expand. On your exhale, push back into downward dog. On your inhale, press up into cobra pose.

Practices like yoga teach us how to sync our breathing with our movements.  It’s not just about exercise; it is about learning to live and be with the pain that is within us, how to hold it long enough to transform it, and then how to let it pass through us without destroying us.

So…I know and believe all that I’ve just written at a head level, and to some extent at my heart level.  When I breathe my chest still hurts and I just want to go crawl under the covers and not move. But I choose to believe that life is good and what comes to me is what I need. I choose to feel the pain and not run away from it. I choose to transform it and let it transform me. I’ve run away from hard things too many times in the past because I was afraid of the pain. But I’m not afraid of pain anymore, and I will breathe deeply into life, and I will get up again and again and again. So bring it, 2018.

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