Stepping into the elevator before your big meeting, you feel your heart start to race. As your chest begins to tighten, you whisper to yourself, “Relax. Deep breaths.” Though you may not be consciously aware of the power of breathing deeply, your instincts are reminding you of the benefits. At any given moment, you are only a few breaths away from feeling calm, cool, and relaxed.
If you observe an animal or a young child breathing while they sleep, you’ll notice they breathe using their entire bodies, with complete expansion into the belly. Before adolescence and adulthood add layers of stress and anxiety which negatively affect the way we breathe and hold our bodies, we have an innate knowledge of what full, deep, healthy breaths feel like. These are the breaths that allow us to thrive.
Imagine you could use x-ray vision to watch every muscle involved in the actions of inhaling and exhaling. The primary breathing muscles (i.e. the muscles we should be using to breathe) are the diaphragm, the abdominal muscles, and the tiny intercostal muscles between the ribs. Diaphragm literally means “partition”, and it is in fact what separates the abdominal and thoracic cavities. The heart is situated between the lungs in the thoracic cavity, and the diaphragm attaches to the heart and lungs. When we take a deep, thriving inhale, the diaphragm flattens and contracts. Each time we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and domes. On the inhalation, as the diaphragm flattens, it pulls the lungs (and the heart), down, creating space for the breath to fill all the way into the bottom of the lungs. As an added bonus, it also massages your digestive organs in the abdominal cavity! At the same time, the abdominal muscles and the intercostal muscles expand three-dimensionally, opening the ribs and creating even more space for the breath. In addition to the digestive benefits, because all ribs attach at the spine, deep thriving breaths are also important for spinal health.
In the thoracic region, the scalene, sternocleidomastoid, trapezius, and other muscles of the neck and shoulders gently aid in expanding the chest and the upper ribs. These are the secondary breathing muscles (i.e. the muscles that can be engaged, but not the breathing MVPs). Issues occur when we rely on these secondary muscles to govern every breath we take. The average human takes anywhere from 17,000 – 25,000 breaths per day. Activate your x-ray vision again, and imagine your neck and shoulder muscles slightly contracting and working tens of thousands of times per day. Now ask yourself why so many people experience tension headaches and neck and shoulder pain.
As we grow, age, and develop, more responsibilities are put onto our shoulders. Sometimes this can feel incredibly literal. The truth is that even the hardest working human bodies will always choose the easiest or most efficient way of getting a job done. We often have far too many balls in the air, and we can only prioritize so many of them. This means rather than taking the time for a full, deep, thriving breath, we learn to do the bare minimum. We take “survival” breaths instead. A survival breath will do just enough to keep us alive, without actually providing the highest quality for that life. This is where we breathe only into the upper third of the lungs, and our necks and shoulders are doing the majority of the work. But the issue here extends far beyond tension in the neck and shoulders because our entire breathing pattern is directly connected to our Central Nervous System. This means the state of the breath directly reflects the state of the mind.
When we are breathing into only the upper portion of the lungs, we activate the stress receptors that live in the lungs. These receptors signal the Sympathetic Nervous System into the Flight, Flight, or Freeze response. Energy and blood flow increases in the limbs, preparing to fight or flee, and our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol (sometimes overly flooded, which can cause the “Freeze” response). Our heart rate increases and we are in survival mode, experiencing a callback to our Hunter-Gatherer days even though very few of us are actually being chased by lions. Many people live their entire lives in this state, and unfortunately, the body cannot heal itself when it is focused on only survival. In order to return to a state of calm, the Parasympathetic Nervous System must be activated. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is turned on when we breathe all the way into the bottom of the lungs. Here, calming receptors are activated. The body turns down the flow of adrenaline and cortisol, and we come back to a state of “Rest and Digest”, where healing can occur.
The beauty of this process is that your body already knows it. It may have just forgotten. Place a hand on your belly. Does it move outward when you inhale? If not, that’s okay. Now you know your starting point. Before bed tonight, take five minutes to focus on the breath. Lay down, and try placing your hands or a book on your belly. Each time you inhale, focusing on moving your hands or the book up. With each exhale, feel it sink in closer toward your spine. Begin retraining that muscle memory. The next time you experience stressful triggers, you’ll be prepared to follow that voice whispering “deep breaths”.