Breathing is something we do all day (approximately 25,000 breaths/ day).
Often times we do not think about our breathing, but how we breathe can affect how we function throughout the day – it shapes how our body moves and helps regulate our nervous system.
If you are someone who experiences stress, anxiety, chronic pain, or tension anywhere from your jaw to your pelvic floor, listen up!
Let’s start off with a little self-evaluation. How do you breathe?
Deep or shallow? Into your neck or down to your belly? Do your ribs move when you breathe? Do you inhale into your nose or mouth? Do you hold your breath throughout the day?
There are a variety of ways to breathe, and the way you breathe may change based on what you are doing at that moment. Tuning into your breathing pattern even for a few minutes a day can help calm your nervous system and reduce chronic tension.
Our autonomic nervous system includes the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). Our sympathetic nervous system is helpful if we encounter a dangerous situation or a situation where we need to act quickly (think zebra running from a lion). But we are not meant to live on high-drive from our sympathetic nervous system all the time. This can leave us exhausted, anxious, stressed, and puts several body functions out of balance. If we can tap into our parasympathetic nervous system, this can help calm our body and mind.
When someone is living with chronic pain, the body becomes very efficient at producing pain. Our nervous system can become more sensitive (like an over-active alarm system), which can lead to a lower threshold for pain, and we may experience higher levels of pain that interfere with our everyday life. If we can calm the nervous system down and encourage more activation of our parasympathetic nervous system, this can help reduce our body’s sensitivity to chronic pain. This is an example of down-regulation.
How do we help our body function from our parasympathetic nervous system?
Specifically, diaphragmatic breathing.
What is diaphragmatic breathing?
Diaphragmatic breathing just means encouraging the body to breathe more with the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle at the base of our lungs. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves down, which allows more space for the lungs to expand. Then when we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes back up to its resting position. If you focus on letting your lower ribcage or belly to expand when you breathe in, this is diaphragmatic breathing.
When we are born, we are good diaphragmatic breathers (watch a young child breathe and you can often see their belly moving with each breath). Somewhere along the way, many of us lose this breathing pattern due to habits, stress, injuries, or trying to suck in our gut all the time. Relearning to breathe diaphragmatically is beneficial for everyone, but especially those who experience anxiety, stress, pain, or muscle tension.
When we breathe using our diaphragm, this stimulates our vagus nerve, which then stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system. This is helpful to keep us calm, slow our heart rate, and help our GI system move along (parasympathetic = rest and digest).
Tips for diaphragmatic breathing:
- Keep your neck, jaw, and shoulders relaxed
- Think of breathing to expand your lower ribs and belly 3 dimensionally
- Make your exhale twice as long as your inhale (focusing on a good exhale promotes a good inhale, and helps snap us out of shallow breathing)
- Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth
- Lie down or sit in a comfortable position
- Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds and feel belly expand
- Hold for 7 seconds
- Exhale through pursed lips for 8 seconds (belly will draw back in)
- Repeat this sequence
Other calming strategies
- Try humming or singing (the vibration in your throat also helps stimulate the vagus nerve)
- Place your hand on your belly (this can be helpful if you can’t fall asleep at night)
- Move your body! (shake out the stress, go for a walk, dance…)
- Eat clean, stay hydrated
- Socialize (try to connect with people in person, not just through technology!)
- Practice mindfulness (you can use apps like Headspace, Calm, or
- Book: Breath by James Nestor – on Amazon
- Book: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky – on Amazon
- Ted Talk: Breathe To Heal – on YouTube