Deep slow breathing (DSB) has been widely used for managing various diseases of the heart and lungs as well as for psychiatric disorders including anxiety, depression, and stress-related conditions. There appears to be some research to support DSB as being helpful for pain management, but the results have been inconsistent. However, a 2012 study suggests that how you “think” while practicing DSB may be the key for reducing pain…
In the study, researchers monitored sixteen healthy adults as they performed DSB while in both a relaxed and distracted state. In the relaxed state, participants were instructed to focus only on taking slow, deep breaths while in the distracted state, participants had to actively manage their deep breathing in pace with instructions on a computer screen. In order to reduce any carry-over effects, the active/distracted portions of the study were spaced six months apart and participants were advised to avoid practicing DSB or meditation or to seek any outside education on the topic.
Interestingly, in both circumstances, participants experienced similar reductions in negative feelings (tension, anger, and depression). However, the researchers only observed improvements with respect to pain thresholds, autonomic activity (skin conductance or sympathetic tone), and thermal detection for cold and hot stimuli when participants were relaxed.
Hence, it appears to be important that focused concentration on inhaling and exhaling or “thinking about” each breath in DSB and removing distracting thoughts is KEY to achieving increasing sympathetic arousal and improving mood processing. These findings may help to explain why mindful mediation, or mindfulness, benefits patients and why Eastern disciplines such as yoga, Qi-Gong, and Tai Chi are associated with reduced pain and improved mood.
Doctors of chiropractic often advise patients to reduce stress as part of management process for chronic pain conditions, with DSB being a great choice. This study shows that when done in a relaxed state, not only can patients experience mood-related benefits but they may also be able to reduce the effect of pain on their daily lives so they can perform their usual work and life activities.