Mind-body Techniques to Control Pain

I AM sitting here writing this column with a swollen right eye because I just had two bouts of minor eyelid surgery in a span of three days, which removed two stubborn sties. The reason I am telling you about my eye problem is because I want to share with you how breathing, relaxation and concentration techniques can help in controlling pain.

I am prone to getting sties in my eyelids. I get them when I am tired, when I lack sleep, when I am stressed and when I improperly use eye makeup (like using other people's makeup and brushes). They are my body's way of telling me to slow down. They are not fun to have especially since removing them sometimes means surgery.

As you can well imagine, eyelids are a delicate part of the body that do not respond well to being clamped, pricked and sliced open. My eyelids are especially not good candidates because I have such small, deep-set eyes. In fact, when I had a laser vision correcting surgery a few years ago, they had to cut the corners of my eyelids just to make the instrument fit.

The last time I needed to have a sty surgically removed was 10 years ago. It is not an experience I remember with fondness. Apparently, neither did my eye doctor and former UP premed "classmate," Christine Solon Perfecto. With good reason, she called me the worst patient she ever had.

In some things, I have a high threshold of pain. For others, I am a total coward. That was definitely a spineless moment with a lot of crying, shouting, thrashing about and other generally shameful behavior.

So when Christine told me last week that there was no choice but to remove the sties, I don't know who was more apprehensive, she or I. We both vividly remembered that infamous incident 10 years ago. Just thinking about what was to come made me tense, but I told myself that I would have to "bite the bullet" and just do it.

Relaxing one's body
It was as painful as I remembered it to be though I did not behave as badly as before mainly because I was embarrassed to make a spectacle of myself again. However, Christine wasn't able to remove as much as she would have liked to because she could see I was already hyperventilating and in so much pain. She kept telling me to take deep breaths while she was cutting away at my eyelid but I guess I just wasn't hearing her.

After the operation, we talked about how breathing can control pain, how shallow breathing makes one even more tense, how in advanced cases people can lie on a bed of nails because they have learned to control the pain response, etc. It's not that I don't know these things. I practice breathing and relaxation techniques to go to sleep and also to control anxiety attacks. But in this case, I let my dread and panic get the better of me.

Three days later, my worst fear came true. There was stuff left inside that would have to be removed. This time, I told Christine, I would really focus on my breathing and keep my body relaxed. She advised me to psyche myself so since the operation was scheduled at 5 o'clock, I spent most of the afternoon visualizing myself as being calm and relaxed during the procedure. And, of course, I prayed to God for strength.

Ironically, I had just taught a yoga class that morning and as always, I had told my students to concentrate on their breathing while holding a pose so they won't focus on the exertion felt by their muscles. So I argued with myself, what's the difference between pain and muscular exertion? Pain is just a much more intense sensation.

As soon as I lay down in Christine's clinic and while she was preparing the instruments, I began to concentrate on my breathing and keep my body relaxed. I kept my arms beside me with my palms facing up just like in the shavasana or corpse pose in yoga. I had my knees bent instead of straight because it was more comfortable for my lower back. It's difficult to be relaxed if your lower back is feeling discomfort and your fists are clenched.

I used "ujjayi" (pronounced ooh-jah-yee) breathing to concentrate on the sound in my throat while exhaling so I would have something concrete to focus on. I also focused on my lungs and abdomen expanding and contracting as I was breathing. I told myself that every time the pain would distract me, I would visualize myself flying away from it on the "wings" of my breath.

Amazing result
It's amazing the difference these techniques made in the amount of pain I felt and how relaxed I was. Christine was able to aggressively remove what needed to be taken out while I felt only minimal pain. I'm not saying the pain was not there. It was there but it felt like a dull distant ache instead of a sharp piercing pain. If anything, I should have felt more pain because the eyelid had already been cut a few days ago and was still sore and swollen. But because of the power of breathing and relaxation, the painful sensations were greatly diminished. There were a few moments when the pain threatened to overwhelm me but the "flying away" visualization got me back on track to breathe properly again and relax.

I have now earned the honor of being Christine's most behaved patient. My name has been removed from her "hall of shame" of scandalous behavior during a medical procedure.

Next week, I will give you a detailed explanation of the four simple techniques I used: belly breathing, ujjayi breathing, progressive relaxation and visualization. I'm sure you will also greatly benefit from them when you find yourself in pain. They are also helpful when you cannot sleep and you are tense from anxiety and worry.

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