ARE WE BREATHING WRONG?
USING BREATH TO DECREASE PAIN, ANXIETY, AND STRESS LEVELS
About a month ago, we had Brian MacKenzie on for an Instagram Live Interview. Brian is one of the founders of ‘The Art of Breath’ and Power Speed Endurance, a programming, coaching, and educational platform for developing sports performance, fitness and health. Brian has been involved in researching and teaching the importance of the breath, and how we can utilize it to not only maximize sports performance, but also as an effective treatment tool for stress, anxiety, and mental health.
The research is growing very quickly on the importance of optimizing our breath, and training our breathing mechanisms in order to improve our training, performance, and overall health.
It is important to understand some basic physiology behind breathing. When this concept is brought up, many people say something along the lines of “Why are we here talking about breathing? We do it automatically”.
Well, the reason why is because of how useful a tool it can be. This is an area that we are truly just tapping into our understanding of, conducting more and more research about. But think about it: If we can improve the efficiency of our breath in athletics, we will have more energy to spend in other areas of the sport. If we can alter our breathing patterns when anxious, we can improve moments of anxiety and the negative effects that come with it.
The primary/main muscles in charge of inspiration (an inhale), are the diaphragm and the external intercostals. Normal expiration (an exhale), is a passive process, which occurs as a result of the elastic recoil of the lungs and the surface tension around it. When we need a bigger exhale, we recruit the internal intercostals, subcostals and the abdominals to assist. What is so unique about these primary muscles and process is that the muscle fibers are extremely fatigue resistant, and they have the ability to be controlled both voluntarily and involuntarily.
There are also a group of accessory muscles, which have a role in either helping with inspiration or expiration. A majority of the muscles surrounding the neck or that have an attachment to the ribs/thoracic spine can be utilized to assist with breathing. These accessory muscles are not intended to be the main drivers of taking a breath in/out, but rather just assist it. The accessory inspiratory muscles include: scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, pectoralis major and minor, and portions of the serratus anterior/posterior and the Latissimus Dorsi.
Now what becomes important is what muscles we use when we both voluntarily and involuntarily breathe. Just like any movement, different patterns can emerge over time. These accessory muscles are often recruited during times of exercising, due to an increased need for oxygen. However, altered breathing patterns have also been shown to emerge with pain, stress, and anxiety. What we don’t want is these accessory muscles to be the primary muscles recruited to breathe. They have many other functions than that. So for many that feel constant neck tension, even when they stretch all the time, there may be another underlying factor influencing that tightness and discomfort.
Have you ever felt short of breath with highly anxious situations? What is happening to our body in these scenarios?
Anxiety often leads to feeling short of breath, which results in an increase in our breath rate, something called hyperventilation. This results in decreased carbon dioxide in our blood, as we are exhaling at a more rapid rate than what our bodies are processing in the inhalation process. Our bodies are very sophisticated. We essentially have sensors and an alarm; when our blood’s pH levels’ change, the alarm goes off. Carbon Dioxide is something our body uses to help feel the sensitivity of stress (both psychological and physiological). When the alarm goes off, this puts us into a sympathetic state, called “Fight or Flight”. This will send our body into a survival mode of sorts, which results in tensing muscles, an increased pulse/heart rate, and the feeling of butterflies in our stomach (amongst other things).
Deep down, we all have an understanding of the importance of breath. Have you ever been stressed out, and someone close to you tells you to “ take a deep breath” or “just relax”. There is a reason for that! Granted, often this is seen to be unhelpful and we tense up more; but the concept is there for a reason. What controlled, nasal breathing has been shown to do is bring us into a parasympathetic state (relaxed state) quicker. We are more efficient overall in a parasympathetic state, and hold less tension here. Staying in a more parasympathetic state and controlling our breath can even have beneficial effects on pain levels.
POSTURE AND BREATH
Studies have demonstrated that a decreased upright posture can lead to altered breathing patterns. How we breathe, and what muscles we use change how we use our energy. We have to expend energy in order to get breath in; however, if we are using increased muscular effort to get air in and out (using more of our accessory muscles), we will be spending more energy in doing so, and thus have a decrease in the efficiency of this system. Improved mechanics can optimize our bodies ability to use our lungs, and improve oxygen consumption. This will allow us to allocate more energy resources elsewhere (for example: running). A recent study looked at respiratory muscle strength when comparing upright vs. slouched sitting positions. A decrease in inspiratory pressure and respiratory muscle strength was demonstrated in more slouched positions. Therefore, in order to get the same amount of breath in, it will require more effort, and likely accessory muscle compensation to occur.
However, our spine is designed to flex, extend, rotate, and side bend. We believe it is important to train access to efficient breathing patterns and the primary inspiratory muscles in both extended and flexed positions, and improving access to thoracic range of motion can assist this. Adding breath training with movement can be very helpful and powerful; it not only optimizes movement efficiency, but also to help create new range of motion. Every time we breathe, we are giving input to our nervous system, in particular the brain. This can help our bodies relax and adapt to new ranges of motion, and has been shown to be incredibly beneficial in regards to the feeling of pain and tension.
So what do we do?
Improving our awareness is the first step. It’s not that breathing through your mouth is wrong! However, understanding how to control one’s breath, how to make our breath processes more efficient, and how using breath to both increase and decrease our sympathetic and parasympathetic tone can be influential in both performance training, and emotional health.
This is just a small snippet into the topic. For more information about this, reach out to us for how an evaluation can help you decrease muscle tension, improve access to your breathing and improve overall mobility.