Pushing Through a Flare With Focused Breathing
Last updated: November 2022
"Breathe in deeply to bring your mind home to your body." –Thich Nhat Hanh
Life with IBD is painful, messy, and exhausting. So, what can a person do when the gut seems to dictate one's every move and mood?
Managing IBD flares and pain
At the beginning of my ulcerative colitis journey, I didn't know how to handle flare-ups. Most of the time, I stressed and fretted, which triggered worse symptoms. I spent more time in the bathroom and curled up in pain. Sometimes I even resorted to curling up on the bathroom floor! It just made "travel time" to the commode easier.
Inevitably, the flare-ups led to feeling depressed and anxious.
So, what can a person do when despair due to a flare supersedes gut pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, inability to eat, and all other issues associated with Crohn's or colitis? Return to center.
"Return to center" breathing
What does that mean? This means you should return to how you began. As newborns, everyone enters the world wailing and screaming... For what? For breath. When your gut and your mind are doing the same during a flare-up, return to your breath.
First and foremost, breathing is central to life. Through breathing, a person’s energy gets restored. This leads to improving body and mind functions. And that is the goal in the middle of a flare-up: improvement in the body and mind.
The stress and anxiety of a Crohn's or colitis flare
When the flare leads to anxiety, stress, and depression, relief can be found through many breathing techniques. Let's face it. Focused inhalations and exhalations cost you nothing and result in relaxation.
Granted, stress doesn't cause Crohn's or colitis, but it does exacerbate symptoms. Your goal in a flare is to reduce the stress seeping throughout your body. As weird as it might seem, I envision green sludge oozing throughout my bloodstream and straight into my gut when I'm stressed and struggling with a flare-up.
How do I reduce the toxic sludge? Only by supplying oxygen to my body.
Breath in the oxygen, breath out the sludge
As we inhale, oxygen enters our lungs and gets dispersed into our bloodstream. It travels to our heart and then gets pumped out into our cells. When we exhale, we discharge carbon dioxide. Oxygen is energy for the body. It fuels all our systems.
So, consider pushing out the stress sludge with every inhalation and exhalation of breathing techniques. Think inwardly, "I want to pump up my cells and dump the sludge!"
Sample breathing exercises
How do you accomplish this? Apply some simple breathing techniques like any of the following:
- Stand/sit up straight. Pull back your shoulders and just do some slow, deep breathing. Good posture lifts the diaphragm and allows better oxygen flow through the lungs.
- Alternate nostrils. Close one nostril with your finger. Breathe in and out slowly through the open nostril. Then, reverse nostrils. Why close a nostril? Studies suggest that forcing yourself to breathe through the nose rather than the mouth is more soothing for the body and oxygen distribution.
- Deep abdominal breathing. Grab a small stuffed animal and lie down on your back. If you don't have (nor want to use) a stuffed animal, placing your hand on the stomach will work instead. Inhale deeply and slowly so that the stuffed animal (or your hand) rises with your belly. Hold your breath for a moment. Then exhale, allowing the toy (or your hand) to lower with your tummy. Perform this technique 10 times in a row.
- "Box breathing." Inhale and exhale using a 4-second count for each. Visualize traveling up one side of a box when inhaling, 1-2-3-4. Move across the top while holding your breath, 1-2-3-4. Move down the other side of the box while exhaling, 1-2-3-4. Repeat the pattern all the way around the box. Visualizing a box helps to anchor your thoughts through rhythmic breathing.
- Soothe yourself mentally while breathing. No matter the breathing technique, remember to think soothing thoughts. Be kind to yourself through self-talk: "It's all right. I'm just fine. Everything always works out. I'm sending oxygen to each of my cells. This too shall pass. I'm doing all right."
Breathing through an IBD flare
Through quick research, you can find many other breathing techniques. The ones I list here are just a few. What matters the most is fueling your body with oxygen. This helps repair the damage of a Crohn's or colitis flare-up. It isn't a cure-all. But the benefits of focused, intentional breathing can calm a turbulent mind and bring it "home to your body."
After applying breathing exercises, I think it's also important to find positive distractions for the mind. Do activities that satisfy and make you happy. Whether that's sinking into a good book, going for a walk, meditating, playing with a pet, or curling up on the couch to binge-watch a favorite show, find ways to "treat" yourself softly without pushing your digestive system.
In other words, it's okay to be selfish. Being "selfish" is vital to healing and tamping down the flames of a flare. So, bring it home! Focus on yourself through breathing. Your cells will reciprocate in kind.
Have you tried deep breathing exercises during a flare? We'd love for you to share your results and thoughts on this topic. Please leave us a comment.
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