The Breathing Habit to Eliminate Chronic Pain and Anxiety
DR. AMY NOVOTNY
Dr. Amy Novotny is an ultra-marathon runner, photographer who has traveled to six continents, and the founder of the PABR® Institute, where she helps people reduce and eliminate pain, stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, orthopedic surgery, and the need for medication. She teaches how to calm the nervous system to relax the muscles and body through breathing and body repositioning techniques.
Under Control Until I Escaped Stress started early in my life. It has been there as long as I can remember.
I grew up with a mother who was mentally ill, but I didn’t know it at the time. I adored her and thought I had a normal childhood like everyone else, even though I never knew which personality would show up each day—Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. After I finished elementary school, she decided she couldn’t handle living in the same state as my father. Within a matter of days, she sold almost everything and flew us from Arizona to Hawaii. After two weeks there, she realized our dad figured out where we were, so we headed to Iowa, where she had grown up.
She decided she didn’t like the memories of Iowa, so she drove us to Henderson, NV. It didn’t live up to her vision, so we headed back to Mesa, AZ, where we lived in a hotel for several months. She spent all of her savings, and I missed school for six months. Somehow I didn’t fall behind and jumped right into advanced classes when I returned.
When I let her have complete control over me, things were fine. I didn’t go out with friends and came straight home after school. Some days she was happy-go-lucky. Other days, she yelled that I was an ungrateful, selfish daughter and threatened to send me away. It took a long time to realize that it wasn’t me or my actions. I couldn’t make her happy, no matter how good or perfect I was. I never drank or have been drunk. I didn’t smoke, do drugs, or have boyfriends. I didn’t do anything but get straight A’s. If I got less than a hundred percent, I was devastated. I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes, but I couldn’t sit or stand or talk without getting in trouble. I was scared to speak most of the time and often went most of the day without talking. Nothing made her happy.
I spent four years in high school and then the first two years as an undergraduate at Arizona State University tutoring my mom six to eight hours every night to help her get her undergraduate and master’s degrees. I used studying abroad in college as my escape. I knew that my leaving would change everything. I needed relief.
I found a new life in France. I lived with a French family and learned the language and culture. I learned what it was like to have a French mother who trusted me and allowed me to grow and explore. My own mother tried to continue controlling me and threatened suicide while I was away. I didn’t give in. Afterward, I backpacked Europe for three months. I knew when I came back she was going to kick me out, and I didn’t look back. I moved out and began to work on me.
Reconciliation I didn’t speak to my mother for nine years. The stress of her in my life had become unbearable, and I couldn’t face the unavoidable verbal beatings, so I had to cut her off to survive. On April Fool’s Day 2014, I found out she was dying from cancer—within a week or two. I dropped everything and ran to the hospital. When I saw her, I burst into tears and apologized. She did the same. She said my coming back into her life gave her the energy and will to live. Her two- week prognosis turned into seven months, part of which she lived with me under hospice care.
There were times during those seven months that she reverted back to her old behaviors. She ordered me around, even knocking things on the ground so I had to pick them up. Once a week, I fought back verbally because the stress had become too much. I was beginning to develop a new breathing habit to calm me, but I wasn’t quite skilled enough to implement it effectively in this high-stress situation. I accepted this wasn’t the time to change her behavior; rather, it was time to provide care and comfort.
Her last promise to me was that she would celebrate my birthday with me. Even though she was nonverbal in the last minutes, we were able to reconcile. She had been comatose for a couple of days; but she came to, smiled, and squeezed my hand. I told her I knew she did the best she could and I loved her.
She made it two minutes into my birthday. Her mother was born that day. I was born that day, and she passed away that day. I had never seen her look so beautiful until the moment the stress of living left her body and all the wrinkles in her face faded away.
Breaking Away from Physical Therapy The constant push from my mother to be perfect as a child seeped into my academic life. I was one of the top three scholars at ASU. In grad school, again, I was valedictorian and the only person to get straight A’s throughout my doctoral program. I wanted to see if I could get lifetime straight A’s because I wanted to learn everything I could.
When I finished my studies, I went the traditional route and worked as a physical therapist in a clinic. I saw some patients with chronic pain, especially back and neck pain, and I treated the standard ways: look at the joints above and below the injury, tighten the core, strengthen, stretch, and perform joint and soft tissue mobilizations. But it wasn’t enough. I knew there had to be more to it. I was not analyzing the whole person, only addressing parts of the body. That’s when I started to look at breathing. I became a director of a clinic for another company and started taking courses through the Postural Restoration Institute®. I started looking at how breathing and asymmetries in the body play a role in mobility. Then I started working on my own breathing habit.
Running 100 Mile Marathons At the time, I was running marathons looking to qualify for Boston. I had run nine marathons and was getting into ultra-marathons, which are longer than 26.2 miles. I had just completed an Ironman triathlon and my first 100-miler on a track course, and I was looking forward to a second 100-mile ultra-marathon in the mountains. I started experimenting with breathing without changing my running or strengthening routines. I started getting faster and running became easier. I could run a marathon, do my specific breathing technique during and afterward to calm down, then get up and walk normally, and the next day go for a run again. With no other changes in my training, I dropped 14 minutes off my marathon time within seven months—a huge triumph. Most importantly, I knew I had to start using this to help other people develop a new breathing habit.
This realization and accomplishment coincided with my mother passing away a month and a half later. That’s when I started looking at the impact of breathing on the nervous system and stress.
I wanted to see how much I could stress my body and still recover. I already had severe mental stress from losing my mom, but what about body stress? I started doing back-to-back races to see if my process would hold up. In 2017, I faced my greatest challenge: a fast road marathon, six days later a 102-mile mountain ultra-marathon, four weeks after that a 62-mile mountain ultra-marathon, seven days later a road marathon, and seven days after that a 50- mile mountain ultra-marathon. I came away without injury and just a little tired. I was onto something special.
Helping Robert Kiyosaki I founded the PABR® Institute, Pain, Awareness, Breathing Relief, in 2018 to address our different pains, whether that pain is physical, stress, or anxiety. The PABR® philosophy uses awareness training of body position and muscle use along with a specific breathing technique to move us from our pain to relief. The focus is to help us sense the “fight or flight” nervous system calming down and regain control over our body. Ultimately, we develop a new breathing and body position habit.
I began shifting my life plans after reading the book Rich Dad Poor Dad in 2018. I then met the author, Robert Kiyosaki, on a cruise during a public book signing, where he told me that he was having pain in his hand. He shared that he had experienced a fall a year prior and had been checked out and told nothing was wrong. He still suffered from hand pain, so I offered to help.
Robert is a famous and high-achieving person. People come at him all the time, and he has a well-developed drive to perform. The military also taught him “chest out, shoulders back,” which puts a nervous system on edge and a person in fight or flight mode. During his time as a pilot, he also had several crashes. Very clearly, his body was in protection mode and had been for a very long time. In a public lounge, I asked him to sit in a chair and walked him through some breathing and position training. Within a few minutes, he was practically asleep. When I woke him, he told me his pain was going away, even the pain in his neck and shoulders.
We needed to change how his nervous system works, so I asked him to continue practicing with me. It would take more than one session, especially since the nervous system resorts to old habits while sleeping. The next day, I met him in the cruise ship gym. I calmed him down enough to put him in a deep sleep and relax his whole body on a mat. He said he felt fabulous and the pain had gone away. The next day, I heard people on the cruise saying Robert Kiyosaki was looking for his body healer. He found me at lunch and exclaimed in front of the table that this was the first time in a year he had been able to sleep pain-free and without waking. Here’s someone who gives and gives to others, and I gave him relief.
The Body and Its Stressors As I’ve learned throughout my childhood and professional life, every stressor in life kicks us into fight or flight mode with physical repercussions. If we don’t recognize this, our body doesn’t return to a relaxed state, and this stress mode becomes our new baseline. Every new stressor, including trauma, piles onto the stress our body is already bearing. Cortisol levels go up, muscles tighten resulting in knots and inflexibility, and our breathing pattern changes. At a certain point, we hit a threshold. Once we cross that threshold, we can experience whole body crises that stop us in our tracks: chronic pain, adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome, panic/anxiety attacks, and more. Help is possible.
We begin by addressing our body position and breathing pattern—both of which can put us in fight or flight mode or relaxation mode. Every time we stick out our chest and straighten our back, we’re putting our body in fight or flight mode. This impacts our breathing too. This is great if we’re tired or need to be alert for short periods of time, but we’re not designed to spend 24 hours a day in this state. We’re designed to be in rest mode and act when needed. To encourage this, I ask people to let their belly button go as they exhale because it allows their breastbone, chest, and ribs to drop down and in. This has a very calming influence on their body. Over time, they start to learn what it feels like to relax each part of their body, fight the effects of stress, and control muscle tension and use.
Resilience and Intentional Calm After only knowing a life where stress was a constant, I’ve changed my daily habits to ensure calm in my nervous system. The daily body aches are no longer present and mental and emotional stresses no longer have grave impact on my body and well-being.
When I wake up, I sit up in bed in a ball against the wall and spend time breathing. We generally think we’re calm during sleep, but we’re often very active. If we are in fight or flight mode during the day, our body continues that at night. I correct this by repositioning my body to a relaxed position. I focus on my chest dropping down and in and my belly and lower back releasing during exhalation. From there, I do a little journaling before I get up for a daily run and work out. Lately, I’ve been spending time gardening to connect with nature.
I am often asked if these new breathing and body position habits last. I share a story of a client and now friend of mine who was scheduled for a total knee replacement and had been doing injections and medications for years. She’s a psychologist and had been a psychiatric nurse prior to that. She thought my methods sounded interesting and a little bizarre, so she gave me a chance in 2016. Within two weeks, she canceled her surgery. It has been over four years, and she hasn’t had an injection or taken anti-inflammatories since. She’s now in her mid-70’s and traveling to Antarctica and the Arctic, climbing in and out of Zodiacs pursuing wildlife photography. This client is just one of many who have avoided surgeries for rotator cuff tears, ACL tears, disc herniations, and joint replacements. When our awareness of the state of our body increases and we learn how to relax tension in specific areas of our body while activating new muscles, we own the change we sense. It becomes our new habit. And it lasts.
For more information on Dr. Amy Novotny, founder of the PABR® Institute, her private coaching, virtual sessions, group training, and her techniques, go to www.pabrinstitute.com. Email Dr. Amy for a free 15 minute consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org.