Of all bodily functions, accessing oxygen is top dog. Go a few hours without a drink and your tongue will feel dry. Go a few days without food and your tummy will rumble. But go a few minutes without air and you will literally be on the brink of brain death. It’s safe to say breathing is a top priority in the human body.
A threat to the respiratory system is Enemy No. 1, and will spur an immediate shift from parasympathetic (rest mode) to sympathetic (stress mode) activity. Due to our constant physiological dependence on respiration, the body will use the musculoskeletal system, the neurological system, digestive system — any system it needs — to make sure that the respiratory system is working. That’s right: If your body is having trouble breathing, it will arrange your posture, your nerves, even the digestion of your Chipotle chicken bowl, in a way to facilitate breathing.
We need both the parasympathetic rest mode and the sympathetic fight-or-flight mode. Yet, due to overly stressful, sedentary lives inundated with toxic food and technology, people are stuck in sympathetic mode.
Our body’s breathing strategy in sympathetic (danger) mode is different from its parasympathetic (safe) mode. In a safe, resting state, the body uses a muscle called the diaphragm to breathe. This muscle attaches to the front of your spine as well as the bottom inside part of your rib cage. With the low back and neck muscles relaxed, the rib cage sits in a position that allows the diaphragm muscle to dome. This is its happy place. Breathing in this position looks like gentle inhalation through the nose that causes all the ribs to expand and reciprocate from side to side.
This left-to-right rib cage reciprocation is complemented by our other reciprocating motions, such as walking. It is a beautifully designed, self-regulating system.
By contrast, when under stress, the diaphragm is pulled from its respiratory dome shape to become flat and taut to aid in stabilizing the spine as the body gets ready for fight or flight.
Without its primary respiratory muscle, the body must get oxygen somehow! Since the diaphragm can no longer work from below the rib cage to expand the lungs, the neck muscles take over from above, hoisting the rib cage up like a bird cage. Additionally, the muscles of the low back extend the lumbar spine to further lift the rib cage, allowing more lung expansion anteriorly (in front).
If this happens temporarily, there is no problem. Have you ever been swimming with a friend and had a competition to see who could stay underwater the longest? At first, holding your breath underwater had a surreal, almost peaceful quality to it. But as soon as the oxygen deprivation set in, your body immediately stopped digesting food and directed blood flow and neurological activity to the musculoskeletal system to propel you back to the surface. Once at the surface, you took a few gasping mouth breaths, hoisting your rib cage up, neck muscles bulging out. A few minutes later, oxygen levels had normalized and you were back to digesting and breathing diaphragmatically through your nose. No problem!
If this happens chronically, there is a big problem. We live in a world full of stressors, and each of them tells your body to go into danger mode. Whether by environmental pollutants, allergies and asthma, fear of failure, pressure to succeed in career and relationships, accidents, illnesses and injuries — our diaphragms keep getting taken out of a happy, domed shape and getting recruited as a soldier to defend against danger. Over time, our brains forget what a happy diaphragm even feels like! In a vicious cycle, our low back muscles get tighter and tighter, our upper back and neck muscles get tighter and tighter, and our ribs flare out in front. There is a reason people under stress say things like “I’m suffocating” and why a person finally at peace says they can “breathe a sigh of relief.” Stress and breath are intimately connected.
Trying to calm down by “taking a deep breath” is ironic. The respiratory system under chronic stress is suffocating not because of too little air but too much! All those little gasping breaths IN add up, and it becomes increasingly difficult to get air OUT. This is why your ribs stick out in front (above your belly) — the lungs are hyperinflated, like balloons about to pop!
But wait — there’s more!
It’s not just low back and neck pain that result from stress-pattern breathing.
The dysfunctional overuse of low back and neck muscles, coupled with hyperinflated lungs and flared ribs, changes the position of the whole body, from your fingertips to your toes. Think of it this way: Your spine, ribs, and pelvis are the house that your shoulders, elbows, hands, hips, knees, ankles, and feet live in. If the house is falling over, it won’t be long before the joints that live there fall over, too.
And that’s not all! Remember earlier when we talked about the neurological and digestive systems? In a chronic sympathetic state, the neurological system is on high-alert, alarm mode.
Pain receptors become more sensitive than normal, and any injury is not only more painful but also more emotional and memorable. Meanwhile, the digestive system is all but forgotten. Its ability to break down food, absorb nutrients, and move waste out regularly and comfortably all diminish. At first, a person under stress will feel decreased appetite. Eventually, nutrient starvation will cause appetite to increase without regulation, spurring what is most often referred to as “emotional eating.” Suffice it to say that dysfunctional breathing is a root cause of a myriad of health concerns that are often treated with costly surgeries, pills, infomercial supplements, etc. At this point, things may look a little bleak for us, but don’t worry.
Let’s get into the solution:
Respiration is the one vital function under both voluntary and involuntary control. This is a big deal. All of the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses we have been discussing are involuntary, or subconsciously controlled. In other words, you can’t tell your digestive system to digest or not, nor can you tell your nerves how sensitive they should be. You can’t put a finger on your pulse and through sheer willpower decide to change your heart rate from 72 beats per minute to 100.
But — and this is a big but — you can tell your respiratory system what to do.
Most of your breathing should be done through your nose. The nose is like your personal air filter. It cleans and warms the air before it goes into the lungs. It also has a relaxing, peaceful effect on the body and the nervous system. Breathe through your nose whenever possible.
Slow down. Change your breathing rate from 20 breaths per minute to 10 breaths per minute. This is key to the human design because it gives us access to our parasympathetic nervous system.
Focus on the exhale. Deliberately exhale through your mouth, getting all the air out of your lungs. Pause at the end of the exhale. Gently, and slowly, inhale through your nose. Repeat three more times and pay attention to how relaxed you feel after.
Match your breath with your movement. Forceful exertion, whether lifting a grandson off the floor or pushing dumbbells overhead, should be coupled with exhalation. The reason tennis players make those crazy sounds when hitting the ball is because a sharp exhale maximizes the power in their movement and protects their spine from rotational stress. Conversely, try to inhale when your body is relatively relaxed, for example, just before picking up your grandson. Trying to inhale when your body is under maximal tension will recruit muscles in your neck and back instead of your diaphragm.
You can breathe a sigh of relief. With a few minutes of intentional breathing each day, you can create lasting change in your pain, posture, and stress levels.
"Sitting time and all-cause mortality risk in 222 497 Australian ...." https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22450936. Accessed 8 Nov. 2019.