Decrease Anxiety and Tension While Improving Core Strength…with Diaphragmatic Breathing
Breathing is an automatic and unconscious part of living. However, are there better ways to breathe? Can better breathing improve posture? Improve/maximize workouts? Decrease back//neck/shoulder pain and anxiety? The answer to all those questions is YES! Its called diaphragmatic breathing.
Please take a moment and assess your own breathing patterns (both inhalation and exhalation). Lie on your back with knees bent (preferably a firm surface with no pillow under your head), now place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Take a nice deep breath in! What rises first? Chest? Belly? Do your ribs move? Now exhale. What moves first?
What should breathing look like? If you are using “ideal” breathing mechanics, the sequence for inhalation should be: ribs expand, belly rises, then chest rises (minimally); exhalation sequence: action should be led by ribs moving down and in, therefore both belly and chest collapse at the same time.
What is the diaphragm?
The diaphragm is a huge, dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage that serves as the main muscle for respiration and plays a vital role in the breathing process. Although it is used 24/7, it goes largely unnoticed (unless you get hiccups!).
When breathing in, the diaphragm contracts, in conjunction with the intercostal muscles, it lowers the pressure in the thoracic cavity which enables air to enter the lungs. When breathing out, the diaphragm relaxes/elongates along with the intercostal muscles, allowing air to leave. Air may be forced out faster by increasing abdominal pressure using the transverse abdominis muscle.
The diaphragm also has an important role in stabilizing the core. It forms the top of the core ‘box,’ working with the internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum, transversus abdominis and pelvic floor.
Benefits of proper diaphragmatic breathing patterns:
Relieves tension in neck and back
Many people with back/neck and even shoulder pain are “shallow breathers”, meaning when taking a deep breath in, the chest rises first and shoulders go up. “Shallow breathers” use accessory muscles such as scalenes and sternocleidomastoid for deep breathing which, over time, could lead to tightness and muscle imbalances through the neck/shoulder area. Tightness and muscle imbalance in these muscles can cause neck pain, shoulder pain, and even headaches.
Initiating a breath with diaphragm, the ribs expands/move, allowing your back muscles (paraspinals) and your abdominals to lengthen. This creates movement through your thoracic spine (where ribs attach), provides natural traction to the lumbar spine (potentially improving disc health), relieving tension and improve mobility through entire spine.
Improves calming system and decrease anxiety
Proper diaphragmatic lengthening and contraction (through proper deep breathing) activates the vagus nerve and triggers a relaxation response (parasympathetic). If the diaphragm never contracts properly, the body is held in “fight or flight” state (sympathetic nervous system), which could lead to rapid, shallow breathing and feeling anxious.
Deep breathing for just 20 to 30 minutes each day will increases the supply of oxygen to your brain, reduce anxiety and reduce stress. Breathing techniques help you feel connected to your body—it brings your awareness away from the worries in your head and quiets your mind. The relaxation response is critical in order for your body to heal, repair and renew.
Improves core strength
During the inhalation portion of breathing, the diaphragm contracts and moves down (opens like an umbrella), the ribcage expands, and the “core” muscles lengthens (transverse abdominus and obliques). As with any other muscle groups, there has to be a lengthening and shortening in order to strengthen (take your bicep for example). During the exhalation portion of breathing, the diaphragm relaxes, the ribs moves in and down allowing for obliques and other “core” muscles to contract (including pelvic floor) and improve core strength. Active exhalation can be achieved by contraction of the abdominal wall muscles (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external oblique muscle and internal oblique muscle).
An amazing foundation starts with great breathing. Take a deep breath…
Elaine Coetzee PT, DPT, ATC
Owner, Physical Therapist
Pure PT and Wellness, LLC
*All content created for educational purposes only. If you are experiencing pain or looking to optimize your movement, schedule a free 15-minute phone call with me to discuss steps to handle this. Always seek advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read online.