Tuesday Tip: How To Breathe Pain

The most important—and most difficult—task of a psychotherapist is to persuade the client of the value of their pain. If this isn’t accomplished, the psychotherapy will be a Band-Aid—it will either fail or it will last forever.

But how do you convince someone to enter into the pain?

I think we must experience the pain in a new way, as tolerable and temporary and, ultimately, life-giving.

Last week, my eight-year-old son pulled a 32-inch LCD television down on his leg. The stand scraped along his ankle, pulling off a layer of flesh about four inches long. It was gruesome.

But the prospect of taking his first shower after the injury was even more gruesome.

As the hot water began to washer over the wound, he cried out in agony. And I asked him to trust me. I asked him to do four things:

  1. First, begin breathing slowly and deeply (by deep, I don’t mean big—I mean taking a normal amount of air deep into your lungs…it will feel like your stomach is filling with air).
  2. Now, start taking the air in through your nose, and slowly begin breathing it out through your mouth (pretend your blowing off soup on a spoon). Pay attention to the breath.
  3. When you have developed a rhythm, on your next breath, focus on your pain, feel it fully, and imagine breathing the air directly into your painful ankle, filling the pain with your breath.
  4. Then, imagine slowly blowing the pain out through your mouth.
  5. Finally, continue doing this until you are completely comfortable feeling the pain.

At first, Aidan refused. The idea of focusing on his pain seemed crazy. But he finally agreed, and after several iterations, breathing into the pain and then blowing it out, he visibly relaxed. He opened his eyes, smiled, and said, “Hey, it worked.”

Aidan’s pain had not changed, but he had discovered he could approach it, walk through it, and he didn’t need to be afraid of it anymore.

We can approach our psychological pain in the same way. When it’s expressed through a headache, or a weight on our chest, or muscle pain, or stomach cramps, we can approach the pain, breathe into it, and learn that our pain is something we live through, not something to avoid. We can even learn to approach our more abstract thoughts and feelings in this way.

If we can do this, we might just end up free to live our lives outside the captivity of our pain.

Tuesday Tip Disclaimer: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jacque Small

    This is an excellent example of feeling into our pain. I have been doing this for the last 3 years and not only have I become present to current pain, but through the process I let go of lots of old pain that had been stored from childhood.

    The Emotional Hot Button Removal techniques are two specific techniques that I use in addition to what you have described above.

    Jacque
    http://www.yourdivinedivorce.com

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thanks, Jacque! And please always feel free to add additional insights like this. Much appreciated!

      • Jacque Small

        Thank you. I really like your perspective and your writing. What you write about is useful for me personally, and my clients who have relationship challenges or are are going through divorce. So I like to share your words of wisdom!

  • ktina1

    Loved it, cried (because of the pain invoked on such a sweetheart), but it was too short. I am longing for more!!! 😉

  • Dixie

    Kelly, I love this!!! What a helpful tool to share with others in coaching as well….thank you!!!

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Your welcome, Dixie! A couple of related and helpful resources: “Calming Your Anxious Mind” by Jeff Brantley and “The Mindful Way Through Depression” by…a whole bunch of people. 🙂

  • kelley joseph

    Thanks Doc, really just what I needed to hear/read today. As a 48 old stay at home mother of 3 great kids,ages 7 to 12, I am currently suffering physical and emotional pain. Have been struggling with shingles for the past 12 days, as a complication to RA, and this morning for the first time my kids took a 2 hour trip with their grandmother and will be staying the night. So its let-go time for me which is exceptionally more painful given my physical pain, so yes your read helped me and will be applied. Thank you for your words of wisdom, they are needed and appreciated…oh and I like your first name but sorry you have it misspelled….kelley
    ….

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Kelley, I’m sorry to hear about your pain. I have a feeling your sense of humor serves you well, though. 🙂 I hope you’ve had a restful and restorative day!

  • Julia Schmidt

    Thank you so much for posting this. Four childbirths and 18 years of esophageal spasms have taught me how to do this with physical pain, but it never occurred to me to do it with emotional pain. I would deal with the issues, but didn’t know how to get past the feelings other than to just call it a “case of the emotional flu” and wait for time to help it to pass. When those feelings are debilitating and the calendar is full, that doesn’t always work so well.. 🙂

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Yes, Julia, there are more and more resources out there that help us apply these kinds of breathing and mindfulness principles to emotional pain. I mentioned a couple in a previous comment. I do hope this sends you in a fruitful new direction. Blessings!

    • Jacque Small

      Julia, I have found that when I feel into the physical pain of emotions in the moment a lot more energy moves out of body than just the current physical pain. By practicing “feeling” I get a lot fewer emotional flu’s. So keep practicing, your an inspiration.

  • Kurt Andersen

    This post, along with some recent weddings that I’ve attended, got me thinking about processing the pain that we [blame ourselves for] inflict[ing] on others near and dear to us. It’s easier to by sympathetic and comforting to our spouse with pain they bring with them from the past. It’s harder when one or both parties blame the other for the injury. Lots more to unpack here…

    • Jacque Small

      Kurt, when I work with couple I often find there is a dynamic loop between one partners pain and another. When you push a button in her often her reaction pushes a button in you and the loop continues until you break of the interaction. However we keep doing this loop over and over again. We can use the pain that is happening in the moment to solve the long term pain that has been stuffed away and is fueling the loop. When one or both of you resolve your pain, you can let go of this loop. For one couple the woman felt hurt, the man felt anger.

      • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

        Jacque and Kurt, I’m glad to see your interaction here! I love to see the added thought and insight. Thanks for being willing to contribute!

  • Jacque Small

    Thanks for letting us!