The Connection Between Mood, Anxiety, Pain And Breathing

The Connection Between Mood, Anxiety, Pain And Breathing

I was sitting at a local coffee shop in my coastal home town with a young mother who had previously struggled with debilitating neck and shoulder pain. She shared her experience after I was excitedly telling her about how our breathing affects our nervous systems and how people can use breathing as a means to manage pain. 

Julia’s neck pain was so bad that she had struggled to work, exercise and enjoy her life. Her anxiety levels were up and she found herself fearful to move and even breathe too deeply at times. She had been to see her doctor, and was offered medication exclusively. In need of relief from the pain, she took the pain killers, which offered a temporary solution. Eventually she realised this wasn’t a long term solution since the pain was only being symptomatically managed without looking closer at some other ways to gain relief and healing. 

The pain and lack of effective solution left her feeling angry at her body, and the anxiety didn’t change either. What she did not know yet, was that there is a fascinating connection between pain, mood, anxiety and breathing which I’ll unpack a bit in this blog. 

Breathing Can Influence Pain, And Pain Can Affect Breathing

Julia’s anxiety was  high when she was in pain, which could naturally lead to   quicker and more shallow breathing. 

When anxiety hits, you tend to  breathe faster.  Attimes, it could feel like you cannot exhale or inhale deeply enough. Inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide is the flow of life and breath through our bodies. 

With the over-breathing,  when you breathe fast and shallow as a result of feeling anxious, you ironically inhale too much oxygen and disrupt your  blood-gas ratios. The blood pH can become slightly too alkaline.  You need the carbon dioxide to help the blood become slightly acidic in order for your red blood cells to release the oxygen, which the red cells picked up from your lungs, to your tissues.  

In other words, when oxygen is too high and carbon dioxide is too low because of over breathing, the red blood cells cling to the oxygen. Even though there is a lot of oxygen in your body at that point,  you lack oxygen where it is really needed.  

Through this, the equilibrium in your brain can be disrupted which leads to a higher perception of pain. In The Breathing Cure, Patrick McKeown sums it up beautifully by saying “How we breathe directly affects how badly something hurts.”

It’s Mostly Possible  To Breathe Through Pain

Breathing can significantly contribute to the easing of tension and pain.  Julia said she wished she had known about this much earlier. 

Eventually she discovered a chiropractor, who understood the dynamics of how the body responds to chronic pain. He worked by gently mobilising her spine, shoulders and neck to alleviate the pain, and create space and movement in the chest cavity which also would allow for better, deeper breathing. 

This improved the activation of the diaphragm and gave her the ‘breathing room’ she needed. She had no idea that breathing could actually shift her experience of pain. Now she knows to breathe through pain rather than hold her breath or breathe shallow, which would ironically escalate the discomfort and agony.

Pain impacts your breathing rate and your breathing rate impacts your level of discomfort.

Slower And Deeper Breathing Might Be The Solution

Breathing slowly and deeply can help to strengthen your  Parasympathetic Nervous System and change your neural pathways over time, away from pain as a default and towards safety and life. Not only this, but this kind of breathing can also lower your stress responses and anxiety, which would  naturally improve your mood and improve your resilience.

If you need some help with pain or simply need to get unstuck with your health challenges, visit my website and make contact to find out when the next 3-week detox course will be. 


2012 Feb;13(2):215-28. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01243.x. Epub 2011 Sep 21. The effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing–an experimental study Volker Busch 1 , Walter Magerl, Uwe Kern, Joachim Haas, Göran Hajak, Peter Eichhammer

J Pain. 2020 Sep-Oct;21(9-10):1018-1030. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2019.12.010. Epub 2020 Jan 22. Can Slow Deep Breathing Reduce Pain? An Experimental Study Exploring Mechanisms Hassan Jafari 1 , Ali Gholamrezaei 2 , Mathijs Franssen 3 , Lukas Van Oudenhove 4 , Qasim Aziz 5 , Omer Van den Bergh 6 , Johan W S Vlaeyen 7 , Ilse Van Diest 6

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