What makes you take a deep breath? The feeling of the warm sun blanketing your body on the roasty beach? Sinking into a pile of powdery snow or marshmallows? Walking into a house that has been cooking with the crock pot all day? Or just finally crashing on the couch or cozy bed after a long day?
As health care providers, we like deep breaths too.
There is something powerful about taking a deep breath, filling up the entire lungs. And it isn’t just in our heads, because there is a physical change in our bodies when we breathe deeply.
Coming from the anatomy world, let’s talk about three different ways people often breathe.
- Neck breathing. This is where people use their neck muscles to breathe and can be associated with asthma.
- Chest breathing. A lot of busy, go-go-go people hang out here. This is when people unconsciously take shallow breaths with shoulders rising and falling with each breath.
- Belly breathing. These are the deep breaths that make the belly transition from the rotundness of Pooh to a deflated belly.
Lots of people emphasize belly breathing. Meditation and yoga enthusiasts teach this deep belly breathing. Teachers use it in the classroom to calm down the children. Physical therapists use deep breathing for a myriad of musculoskeletal conditions.
Why is belly breathing important for the physical human body? For one, deep breathing opens the floodgates of our “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system. This is called the parasympathetic nervous system, and when that current is sailing, it takes the human body to a calm state. It gives us time to digest, rebuild the immune system, and overall relax and restore.
Belly breathing tells us to relax and rebuild, and it simultaneously downplays the “fight or flight” system. This is called the sympathetic nervous system, and when its turbines are fired up the following happens: we feel anxious, our blood pressure and heart rate go up, our palms sweat, our face gets flushed, our pupils dilate, digestion slows down, and we prepare physically and emotionally to fight off a threat. Physically, this response tenses up our muscles, especially in our neck, shoulders, and back.
While the sympathetic nervous system is crucial to our function and survival, we don’t need to mount this dramatic response all the time. Unfortunately, because of our stressful and busy lifestyle, we often live in this state of fight or flight. The resulting tension in the muscles and stress on the nervous system can lead to headaches, tight backs, and shrugged shoulders (leading to more tight necks).
But fear not! For belly breathing is here to help.
As stated before, belly breathing can INCREASE the relax and rebuild (parasympathetic) system and DOWNPLAY the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) nervous system.
Okay, how do we do this? It starts by taking a deep breath in and out, emptying the lungs all the way. Then, one can put a hand on the belly and another hand on the chest. The idea is to take in a deep breath—and only move the hand on the belly. Feel the belly push against the hand, like a rocket ship beginning to launch. The hand on the chest will stay mostly still, like a hammock between two palm trees on a breezeless day. The belly will puff out like a balloon, and then calmly sink back down to regular size again.
It only takes a few breaths to start the shift from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest).
Deep breathing can almost instantly help us downshift, feel more relaxed, and focus on what is going on around us. It tells the body that we are not being chased by a predator and that we can digest and rebuild. It helps those tight muscles to be squishy instead of hard. Whether for an instant change or a long-term pattern, belly breathing can help us let go and carry on.
by Hannah Mullaney, SPT