by Brooke Keefer
Some may wonder how things like meditation and breathing help SOD. They help because the fact is that stress, anxiety, and depression impact our digestive system and pain perception. No, this is not an article insinuating SOD is all in your head. One of my biggest pet peeves is to hear about an SOD patient's health care provider suggesting their symptoms are psychological. That being said, stress and emotional imbalance could make things worse and impede recovery or remission. Therefore, it is important to treat our minds along with the rest of our bodies.
I can’t tell you how many times I felt sick, then became stressed over being sick, then felt sicker because I was stressed, then felt more stressed because I was feeling sicker. This went on and on. It was a vicious cycle. Getting a handle on stress can help prevent SOD from spiraling out of control. Before my SOD became disabling, I led a productive, healthy, low-pain life with SOD for 12 years thanks to deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, diet, and lifestyle changes. You may never be completely rid of SOD pain or other symptoms but these practices absolutely can help move them from the center stage of your life to the distant balcony.
Breathing is so underrated. We do it several times during each minute of the day. In addition to sustaining our lives, amazing things happen on the cellular level when we breathe. Breathing deeply and with intention has shown to relieve stress and lessen pain.
Think about the popular childbirth breathing program, Lamaze. According to the Lamaze International website, conscious breathing (especially slow breathing) reduces heart rate, anxiety, and pain perception. It works in part because when breathing becomes a focus, other sensations, such as labor pain, move to the edge of your awareness. Conscious breathing also keeps the expectant mom and baby “well oxygenated”.
Recently I came across a great article in Yoga Journal called, “The Science of Breathing”. Fast uneven breathing triggers the nervous system, turning up stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, sweat production, and anxiety. Alternatively, slowing your breath dials down all of the above as it turns up relaxation, calm, and mental clarity. The deep inhales of conscious breathing introduce more oxygen into your body while deep release exhales remove the carbon dioxide waste products. In theory, more blood can be oxygenated using this technique.
So how does this help those with SOD? Well, aside from what I just wrote, I don’t know. I do know that once I began practicing conscious breathing my pain was more manageable. Pain did not disappear. It became tolerable. Through my breathing practice, I was able to achieve a level of acceptance and patience around my painful condition. Prior to this I was living in fight or flight, making the pain worse. Today, I continue to practice this type of breathing especially when stressed, worried or scared.
Conscious breathing is fairly simple. My only suggestion is to breathe deeply through your nose rather than your mouth. You will know you are doing it right when you make a slight hissing type sound, sort of like a light snore, at the base of your sinuses and beginning of your throat. Perform deep inhales for a count of at least four. You will want to fill your upper belly on inhale and deflate it on exhale. When inhaling, your goal is to stretch out your diaphragm, which serves as the main muscle of respiration and is attached across the lower ribs. Follow with an identical count exhale.
For the longest time I considered myself a meditation flunky. In vain, I have accumulated a rather large collection of books on meditation, including, “Meditation for Dummies” and viewed countless tutorials on how to meditate. Meditation alluded me for a very long time. Sitting still and quieting my mind was a constant struggle. Instead of clearing my head I would obsess over needing to vacuum the floor I was sitting on, or try to remember if I set the dvr for my favorite show. I would get uncomfortable sitting straight up. I’d slouch and readjust my leg fold to get comfortable but to no avail.
Finally, I came to realize I was never going to be perfect at meditation and that was ok. I accepted the fact meditation was a lifelong work in progress. I changed my seated position to whatever position I felt comfortable, even if that meant lying down or curled up on the couch. I recognized the disruptive thoughts and imagined ushering them out of my psyche without judgment. “Goodbye thought,” I’d say to myself. I started humming and incorporating my deep breathing. I still do not meditate perfectly or as often as would benefit me, but I’m doing my best and that’s what matters.
Most days I take advantage of guided meditations to lead me to a place of peace. You can order guided meditations online. I prefer to search for guided meditations on Youtube and listen to the videos. I also have a few meditation apps downloaded on my phone. Some people prefer podcasts. Last year I saw a certified hypnotist/hypnotherapist to strengthen my meditation practice and help me to cope with my chronic pancreatitis pain. It was very helpful. I still use some of the self-talk the therapist taught me to relax and focus on absolutely nothing.
Here are a few YouTube links for guided meditations or channels containing guided meditations:
Mindfulness Meditation—especially for eating
I have a friend who eats very slowly. Instead of getting annoyed over how long it would take her to finish her lunch or dinner, I admired the way she ate with such intention and care. She would savor every morsel of food as I inhaled a whole plate of food within minutes. I have always been a fast eater, someone who ate like it was their last meal. My dad would say I ate like it was going out of style.
With SOD I realized that overeating and stuffing my face made my symptoms worse. It put an incredible strain on organs already strained from the sphincters not working properly. I saw a naturopath who suggested a change the way I ate. She called it something like food hygiene and told me to chew my food 20 or more times and count as I am chewing. I did this for a few weeks then reverted back to my animalistic flare for eating. Recently I have come across something called “Mindful Eating”. As I read about mindful eating I knew it was something I could benefit from. First, though, I educated myself on the practice of mindfulness.
I thought mindfulness and meditation were one and the same but they are a bit different. With mindfulness, you focus and set your intention on one thing. For example, this could be breathing, an object, or imagined ball of color. This will lead you to a state of meditation in most instances. As in meditation, you get comfortable and acknowledge disruptive thoughts, then shoo them away. But with mindfulness, you are aware of your intention. Your senses are highly alert. With breathing you would focus in on the air entering your nose and lungs, the smell of the air, the feeling of your lungs filling and diaphragm stretching. You would be in tune with whatever it is you are focusing on. You could replicate this exercise with say the sun--sitting in the sun and feeling its warmth, brightness through your eyes. Mindfulness is the ultimate practice for the present moment.
There are several books and websites dedicated to teaching you how to practice mindful eating. With mindful eating, you set your intention on the food you are about to eat. Take a piece of fruit. Hold it in your hand. I say a prayer of thanks for the food I am about to consume. Then hold the food to your nose and release your sense of smell. Eat the food slowly, moving it around your mouth. Notice the texture and taste. Chew slowly then swallow. Make eating a process, rather than a shovel fest. You can incorporate counting your chews if you want. As long as your focus is on the slow process of acknowledging and engaging the food you eat. I started practicing this recently and can honestly say I feel better after eating. Many dietitians are touting mindfulness eating as a weight loss strategy. This may concern some of you who have unintentionally lost weight due to your SOD. I doubt you would lose much weight with mindfulness eating unless you also changed the food you were eating. Therefore, practicing it shouldn’t detrimentally affect your weight.
Breathing and meditation are great, but I will be honest. On days when my pain flares, no amount of breathing or quieting the mind helps, which is good there are other “survival” techniques I can employ. Whether you utilize breathing and meditation as a complimentary treatment to your other SOD treatments or they are your only SOD treatment, I assure you will not be disappointed practicing these on a regular basis.