The symptoms of chronic illness can be so severe, it’s easy to overlook the simple things that can bring relief. My experience of chronic fatigue syndrome / fibromyalgia came with symptoms so incapacitating, I was convinced only a doctor or miracle could help me. This true story illustrates the point perfectly.
During many tests to find the cause of my symptoms, a benign brain tumor was discovered in one of the rear ventricles of my brain. Ventricles are fluid-filled structures that help cushion the brain, and the mass in my ventricle was shedding inflammatory cells that caused excruciating migraines.
After surgery and a few complications, my head swelled like a balloon. I was in agony, and morphine was not controlling my pain. I asked for the dose to be increased, but the nurse told me they could give me no more. She could however offer me an ice pack. An ice pack? Seriously? I refused such a ridiculous suggestion and suffered in silence for another hour.
Pain has a way of humbling the toughest of us, and with no other choice, I gave in and asked for the ridiculous ice pack. Within minutes, the throbbing stopped. The pain started to ease and I felt completely ridiculous for having needlessly suffered. I was not the first patient my nurse had seen in my condition. She knew very well the ice pack would help me. I was too stubborn to even try.
The moral of this story is that sometimes, the easiest and simplest things can have the most profound effect. Like breathing. If you haven’t read Holly Wade’s excellent blog, “The Seven Benefits of Deep Breathing”, you can read it here.
Speaking for myself, breathing is something I take for granted. It’s something that just happens and takes no thought on my part. Yet if we focus our breathing in certain ways, we can calm our nervous system, improve digestion, reduce pain and sleep better. Not bad for something we all have to do anyway!
Here’s a simple breathing technique you can use for reducing anxiety and stress. Developed by Dr. Andrew Weil and based on the ancient yogic technique called pranayama, (breath regulation), it’s called 4-7-8 breathing. Read the brief instructions below and give it a try right now.
Exhale completely with a whoosh. Breathe in through your nostrils for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. This is considered one breath. Repeat four times.
When I first tried this exercise, I could still feel my heart pounding after four breaths so I knew I was nowhere near relaxed. It took a total of seven breaths before I felt it. A magical release of stress, a melting of the tension my body was storing. Like someone had pulled the plug and my anxiety was no more. I use the 4-7-8 breath technique whenever I feel my body becoming agitated and antsy. I know from experience that comes from too much adrenaline. The number of breaths it takes me to feel that same release is a way to gauge my level of stress. Yours too.
Finding a handful of tools that work is one of the keys to managing life with a chronic illness. Life happens, flares happen, and we don’t always make the right choices. But when we find some simple techniques that work for us, that we can use consistently, it puts us back in control and provides relief. Remembering to use them can be a different matter!
If you’re struggling to manage your chronic illness, commit to finding a handful of simple tools that help you feel better and control your symptoms. Use the 4-7-8 breath technique. Check back here often as we add more tools and techniques. Doctors, tests and medicines are an important part of managing your condition, but don’t underestimate the power of the small stuff!