Conscious Breathing for pain control and my successful tattoo experiment

Background:

As you might have guessed I am very curious on how breathing can be used to control your health, improve your health, and help with the management of pain, anxiety, stress, and even increase athletic performance and endurance (not just working out related stuff, but day to day just feeling better). I have to report this breathing method was very successful for me during this experience, in the past I have used things like CBD or other things to try to numb the pain to make the experience easier, but this time I controlled my response to the pain and even became curious about it rather than withdrawn by it. I leaned into the pain response and it helped me overcome my body’s natural revulsion to pain.

I used conscious breathing for pain management during my latest nature / space sleeve that is progressing up my right arm. It worked amazingly. The technique was simple and although I still felt the pain, I wasn’t as bothered by it like on previous occasions, I was focusing on my breath and it allowed me to be more curious about the experience than anything.

 

The method:

6-8 second full diaphragmatic nose only inhales followed by

8-12 second full nose only exhales.

Lather, rinse, repeat

 

I put ranges in here because it is important to hit the minimum times, but let your body tell you how long you breathe in or out after that. I found myself varying the times in more sensitive areas, but it is important to know that your have the discretion to figure it out on your own. The most critical thing is to nail your exhale to be 8 or more seconds. I did not stare at a clock the whole time, I counted in my head or my heartbeats throughout. When you breath out this slowly and through your nose you are sending a relaxation signal through your nervous system because your body is programmed to be more restful and relaxed when you breath slowly and if you are breathing slowly and controlled the situation you are in (whether it be a tattoo or another life stressor like someone just cut you off in traffic, or a coworker is being that way they are) you can breathe to establish control over your nervous system, remain calm, and perform despite anything that is going on.

I did this with full belly diaphragmatic activation and ensuring I was breathing in all the way without trying to really force it in. You can try it by laying/sitting down and put one hand on your belly and one on your chest, then make sure you initiate your breath through your belly hand first then your chest hand. Then the opposite when you breath out slowly, move your chest hand first, then your belly hand, and make sure you pull your belly hand in toward your spine in you exhale. The BIGGEST tip here is that you need to nail your exhales, do them through your nose and make the last at least 8 seconds.

 

The experience:

I prepared for this by starting the conscious breathwork while we were getting set up and organizing the art and setup. When you breathe like this you feel relaxed and a calm comes over you. This is because it allowed my mind to focus on breathing and not the everyday stressors that it always runs around stressing about, breathing through the nose calms the nervous system because the body prefers to breathe through its nose (it has receptors in there that are always checking what air is in that space and if you aren’t breathing through your nose you aren’t letting your body understand what is going on and you are hindering your ability to accomplish tasks and I was nervous when I my artist James (@jamesmaxwelltattoos at Electric Park Tattoo in Detroit) started working.

As he worked the I felt the needles and concentrated on my breathing. Not the whole time, as we chatted I would talk freely, but when I was listening, I would return to my breath control. I could feel areas such as over the Ulnar and Radial Nerve in my forearms that are traditionally more sensitive areas, but it didn’t bother me as much. I felt it, but my body knew it was ok, temporary, and I was getting great art added to my arm. Even when he was working directly over the bones in my arm it wasn’t a problem, yeah it hurt, but it wasn’t as intense, the pain didn’t seem to penetrate as far, it made it more of an awareness. I did notice I furrowed my brow a few times, but after a few breaths I was able to even it out.

I put my body in a few various positions to allow James to work on my arm more easily and at one point I was bent around to the point that my face a few inches away from my forearm, just staring right at where he was working. It was interesting, I was more curious about how he was shading and making the art come alive. I was distracted by the way the ink was pooling around the area where he was working. I really liked how I could watch his blending of colors and making the artwork come alive. All the while I concentrated on my breath, but it wasn’t every breath. It was most breaths. We chatted about life, movies, shows, and other things while he worked and I have to say it was an altogether pleasant experience.

It is important to highlight also that I feel good when I breathe like this. The entire time and for several hours afterward my mood was elevated, my stress level was reduced, and I just felt like a more put together person. Its pretty easy to try out on your own, you just need to keep track of when you lose track of your breath and bring it back to where you need it. For example, on this day I would notice my pain levels were become more annoying and I realized that I had stopped consciously breathing for whatever reason, distracted by artwork, distracted by the art making process of the tattoo, gabbing with James, or just wondering about life. Once I realized my mind had been distracted, I simply just returned to the breath.

Why this works:

Nasal breathing, breathing through your nose sends a signal to your body and brain that you are not in a dangerous situation and has a downregulating/calming effect. This is because our body’s are designed to breathe exclusively through our noses, the fact we can breathe through our mouths is an evolutionary backup system so that we can survive if our nose is blocked from an infection or injury so that we can keep breathing. Breathing is the most important thing you can do to regulate your own health. The best part is it is free, and you can do it whenever. In your car, riding in a place, while spending endless hours in a zoom meeting that could have been an email.

Diaphragmic breathing is another reason this method works because your body prefers to breathe using its diaphragm. So every time you breath like this you are sending signals of safety and health throughout your body. Long slow diaphragmic breaths lower the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and raises the parasympathetic system (rest and digest). Most people in this country have an overactive sympathetic system and underactive parasympathetic system because we live constantly connected to every stress that we get get our eyes on through social media, regular media, and the people around us. Doing this diaphragmic breath will help you correct this imbalance and help you be a more effective person.

Long exhales are another method to calm the sympathetic nervous system and keeping your exhales to an 8 count or longer will keep sending rest and relaxation signals to your brain. This is because your body is designed to interpret fast breathing as there is a problem or an emergency like a bear chasing you or some other threat, while if you breath slowly your body thinks, well there can’t possibly be a bear around here because we are breathing the way we are, so this must be chill.

Follow up:

This breathing is not just for this application. You can use it in your everyday life to help you become more comfortable with pain, realize that you can control your response to pain without struggle, and help you overcome things that normally would stress your body out.

You can use this breathing method all the time you are awake if you choose. Outside of tattoos, if I feel my stress and anxiety level start rising, I switch to this breathing method for a while until I notice the symptoms start to reduce. It normally only takes a few breaths to do this, but sometimes it takes a concerted effort to make the change.

I encourage you to try this breathing method out for stress control, anxiety, or if you have an ache or pain, you can breathe yourself into a state where it won’t bother you as much.

Just remember nail your exhale. And if you’re doing something where you can’t breathe whatever you are doing its too much, you need to concentrate on your breathe, back off, and figure out how to do whatever it is that you’re trying to do is a more manageable manner.

As always contact me for more information. I offer free consultations to determine which of my services are a good fit for you.

Stay healthy and get out on your adventures!

Brian McCarroll