Posted on June 19, 2012 by Debra Burdick
The first time I ever experienced claustrophobia took me by surprise. My doctor sent me for an MRI many years ago to find out why my jaw hurt. I didn’t know what to expect but I had no reason to worry about the small confines of an MRI machine because I had never experienced any signs of claustrophobia. When the MRI technician positioned me on the table and then slid me backwards all the way into the ‘tube’ I suddenly wanted to flail my arms and get out of there as fast as possible. My heart pounded and I felt panicky for the first time in my life.
Thankfully the technician slid me right back out of the machine. He then asked if I needed medication to relax. I said ‘no, I think I can do this’. I then stared doing some relaxation breathing and centered myself and prepared for going back inside that ‘tube’. This time I was able to keep myself calm and was able to complete the MRI test with no further panic.
Over the years I have had a number of MRI tests, many of which did not require me to go in head first nor to slide all the way in. Some did require this but I never had further trouble with claustrophobia – until yesterday.
Yesterday my doctor sent me for an MRI to find out why my shoulder hurts. I was not aware of any worry about the test. I laid down and the technician handed me a bulb to squeeze if I was having any trouble.
As soon as he started to slide me into the tube and I saw the ceiling of the tube a few inches above my face my stomach lurched. Whoa! I hadn’t felt that way in years. I became aware that my heart was pounding and was beating way too fast. My mouth and throat went dry. I immediately realized I needed to calm myself down or I would need to get out of there fast.
I quickly started to use a breathing technique to calm myself down that I have taught hundreds of clients and students over the years.Here’s what I did. First, I closed my eyes and took a deep belly breath in through my nose to the count of four and then exhaled slowly through my mouth with pursed lips to the count of eight. Then I did this breath again. I could still feel my heart pounding but I already felt less anxious and my stomach started to feel better.
Then I allowed myself to breathe normally while observing the feeling of the breath. I started counting each time I exhaled. When I had counted four breaths I held one finger out and counted that as one set of four. I continued counting another four exhales and held out a second finger thereby counting a second set of four. I continued to do this for several minutes.
Every time my attention wandered from breathing and started to focus on the fact that I was in that ‘tube’, I accepted the thought, dismissed it, and returned my attention to counting my exhales. I noticed that my heart rate slowed down to a more normal pace and my heart stopped pounding. My shoulders, my face, and my legs began to relax. There was moisture in my mouth again. I began to feel a sense of comfort and instead of feeling confined in a tiny space I felt like I was snuggled into a safe cocoon.
As the noises of the MRI test bombarded me with clicking, tapping, whirring and popping sounds I noticed them but returned by attention to counting my breaths. I was able to float through the rest of the test and slowly became drowsy and drifted in and out of sleep.
Of course, as soon as I knew I needed to lie still, my nose started to itch. When I noticed the itch I acknowledged it and then just observed it while I continued to count my exhales. Slowly the itch subsided. Another spot started itching. Again, I observed it and returned my focus to counting my breaths. Again the itching subsided. I eventually realized than nothing was itching at all and I felt comfortable and relaxed.
Although I have been teaching and using these breathing techniques as part of a mindfulness practice for years, it was so comforting to see how effective they were for me when I used them for a very practical application. I also realize that they worked so easily and effortlessly for me partly because I had practiced them when I wasn’t experiencing any panic or claustrophobia.
Try these breathing techniques I used for yourself. Research shows us that practicing these kinds of mindfulness skills improve our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. And they might just make your next MRI experience a whole lot easier!
Check out the meditations on the Mindfulness Toolkit CD/mp3 to help you practice the relaxation breath and other mindfulness skills that will help you relax and stay calm.
I would love to hear your personal experiences with this topic.