How to Deal with Physical Stress: It’s Easy. Just Breathe.

How to Deal with Physical Stress: It's Easy. Just Breathe. | ProActive Pilates

Did you know that on average, humans breathe about 22,000 times a day? This is interesting, because despite the fact that we each do this basic thing every moment of our lives, many of us still aren’t getting the best breath we possibly can. And in terms of impact, fixing one thing we do 22,000 times a day has a huge impact in your everyday life and stress levels, so let’s dive in!

In my work as a physiotherapist, one of the areas I focus on with many clients is the idea of a full, three-dimensional breath. And this is truly how to deal with physical stress—by using our own bodies to work efficiently. But what exactly does a “three-dimensional breath” mean? To fully answer this question means understanding the following information.

How our bodies breathe

In order for our lungs to properly fill with oxygen and push out carbon dioxide, we rely on a muscle that sits between our chest and abdominal cavities called the diaphragm. 

While you might think of your lungs as doing all the work for your breathing, they actually can’t move whatsoever on their own. Without the diaphragm, our lungs wouldn’t be able to draw in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. 

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle. In its relaxed state, its shape somewhat resembles an open umbrella. When we inhale, this muscular dome is pulled downwards, contracting all the way down until it’s almost completely flattened. When we exhale again, the dome returns upwards into its dome-shaped position. 

A full, ‘good’ breath impacts eleven systems in the body. This includes:

  • Digestion
  • Detoxification
  • Circulation
  • Emotional regulation
  • Relaxation response

Most of us know that breathing and oxygen supply is essential for countless processes in the body. But did you know that the quality of your breath is also seriously impacted by your stress levels?

The link between stress and breathing

The diaphragm is stimulated by the vagus and phrenic nerves, which play a role in controlling the motion of the diaphragm and ensuring it’s working normally. However, this also means that your diaphragm—and therefore your breathing—is affected by your autonomic nervous system. This is part of the nervous system that unconsciously controls bodily function including heart rate, digestion and breathing. 

There are 2 branches of the Autonomic Nervous System: 

  1. Sympathetic Nervous System – the body’s ON switch, gets us ready to mobilize for action or “the Fight or Flight response”
  2. Parasympathetic Nervous System – the body’s OFF switch, which supports relaxation or “the Rest and Digest response”.

The Autonomic nervous system is the way our minds relate to our bodies in terms of stress. If stress levels are high, it can lead to shallow, quick or nervous breathing, which in turn sends a stress signal to the brain, perpetuating a cycle of stress and poor breathing, putting us into the Sympathetic Nervous system state of Fight or Flight. When we can take deeper, slower breaths with longer exhales, it turns ON our “OFF switch”. Simply put, it tells the Parasympathetic nervous system that we can relax and thereby lowers our stress levels and supports relaxation. This allows for deeper and slower breathing, which calms the body down even more.

So, now we know how breathing properly equals natural stress relief. What can be done to get more mindful and deliberate when it comes to our breath? And what options do we have to break the cycle of stress and poor breathing caused by the sympathetic nervous system?

The good news is, there is a solution—the three-dimensional breath!

Breathing in 3D

It might be tough to wrap your head around at first, but there’s more to breathing than simply filling your lungs! There are actually three areas in the body where breath goes, and being mindful and deliberate about how you breathe into these three areas will help you use your diaphragm to its full capacity, as well as calm your body using the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve.

So what are these three areas that fill as you breathe?

  1. Abdominal region (belly)

Breathing into a relaxed abdominal region is the healthiest, most natural way to breathe. Not only does it use your diaphragm to its fullest potential, but it also helps profoundly in managing stress and creating a calming response. This can be made more difficult if we hold tension in our abdominals or especially our external obliques as they limit how much the lower ribcage can expand.

Have you ever noticed the way a baby breathes? Almost invariably, their abdomen or stomach rises and falls as they breathe. Breathing into our abdomen is a natural response that is often lost somewhere along the way once prolonged sitting is introduced, typically when kids start school around age 5-6 years old.

In terms of the three-dimensional breath, you can think of the abdominal region breaths as the vertical axis, or the depth of your breath.

  1. Thoracic zone (chest and back)

The thoracic zone uses your diaphragm as well, but it also fills your chest cavity laterally, or side to side. Thoracic breathing engages your intercostal muscles, which are the muscles that sit between each of your ribs, to pull the ribs outwards into an accordion-like or bucket-handle movement pattern. This is also a healthy way to breathe, but it can often be made more difficult for anyone with tension in their back, pecs, or obliques.

  1. Clavicular zone (neck)

Breathing into the clavicular zone can be thought of as a last resort for breath. If you’re not able to fully breathe into your abdomen and thoracic regions, the breath will instead go to the clavicular zone, which engages the neck muscles. While this is sometimes able to be controlled, there’s also an instinctive part of it. When we’re in high-stress/emergency situations, such as a panic attack or asthma attack, we tend to breathe more into this zone, which in turn creates more stress via the sympathetic nervous system.

The diaphragm is a vital inspiratory muscle, and you should be doing everything you can to use it to its full potential, rather than compensating with other parts of the body. So how do we achieve that?

Finding stress relief via breath control

So now that you understand a bit more about how breathing works and how it relates to stress levels in the body, how do we go about getting it under control? Here are a few exercises that I often use with clients. They’ll help you unlock proper, healthy breathing and start feeling more calm and stress-free!

Before beginning, I always tell clients to do a check-in on their Zen/stress scale, from zero to ten. Zero would be completely Zen, not a care in the world, while ten would be stressed to the max. So take note of where you’re at on this scale first and then check back in after the exercises below to see if you feel any different.

Then, while lying on your back or seated, do another check-in—this time to see where your breath is going. Put your hands on the sides of your ribs and your belly as you inhale and exhale slowly through your nose. 

What’s moving? Is your abdomen moving forward and back? Is your rib cage expanding outwards and back in? Do you feel tension in your mid-back or low back? Or is it travelling into your neck and leading to tension in those muscles?

Now, turn your attention to where your body wasn’t moving. Let’s work on those areas with one of these exercises:

Lateral breathing

To improve breathing in your thoracic region, you’ll need to work on bringing awareness to the sides of the ribcage to encourage more accordion-like movement of both sides of the ribcage.  We’ll start showing you how you do it, with 1 side first to notice the difference between sides.

Lateral breathing example - ProActive Pilates

  1. While seated or lying on your back, use a small ball or a rolled-up towel under one arm. 
  2. Take five slow inhalations through your nose, and as you do this, focus on trying to push your ribcage sideways, out into the ball or towel. It should be difficult, since there’s something in the way, but keep trying to expand outwards.
  3. Slowly exhale through your nose, being sure to push out all the air before inhaling again.
  4. Repeat five times. 
  5. Take the ball/towel away and notice where the air is now going? Is one side moving more than the other side? Does it feel like there’s more expansion on the side you just focused on?
  6. Switch sides and repeat with five more breaths.
  7. Check in again. Does breathing into the sides of your ribcage feel easier? Is it now more even side to side, or more effortless?  Where are you on the Zen/stress scale now?

Back body breathing

Often, tension and tightness in the back can limit expansion and movement of the diaphragm and limit back body breathing. Here’s an exercise to fix it:

Child's pose - ProActive Pilates

  1. Using a rolled-up towel or ball again, enter Child’s Pose. Your knees and feet should be on the floor, with your arms outstretched and your head as close to the floor as possible. Place the towel/ball between your thighs and your lower chest/ribcage, if it’s comfortable as this should round your back slightly more to allow for relaxation.
  2. If you’re not able to do a child’s pose, you can do a sink squat. Stand in front of a kitchen sink with your hands holding onto the front edge or something else you can support yourself on. Squat with your knees and feet close together. Get your bum as close to the floor as possible, and your thighs as close to your ribs. Your thighs should block how much the ribcage can expand into your belly.
  3. Like the last exercise, take five slow breaths through your nose. Focus on trying to expand your ribcage and abdomen backwards/outwards. Inhaling will feel limited, since air can only go to the sides and backs of the lungs, as the belly expansion is being limited by your thighs. 
  4. Repeat five to ten times; it should get easier as you go.
  5. Sit up and notice where your breath is naturally going. Does it feel like it’s reaching the back and the sides now? Does the breath feel easier or effortless? Do you feel more relaxed? Where are you now on the Zen/stress scale?

These routines are easy to work into everyday life as exercises for stress reduction. In the case of both the lateral and back body breathing exercises, these can both help you feel more relaxed in the neck and prevent breathing in the clavicular region, which decreases your overall stress response.

3D Expansion exercise

You can also do a general 3D expansion exercise once you can feel how the ribcage can move well to calm you. This will help create more space for your breath and get in the habit of healthy breathing. 

  1. Inhale through your nose, slowly, for four full seconds.
  2. Exhale through your nose, slowly, for four full seconds.
    1. If you’re having a hard time controlling exhalation through your nose, exhale through your mouth slowly, as if you are blowing out a candle instead.
  3. Repeat 10-15 times, slowly working your way up to an eight-second exhale.
  4. Check-in on your breathing and stress levels and notice the improvement!

Breathing easy and finding natural stress relief with ProActive Pilates

No matter how many breathing exercises you do, sometimes other things prevent you from breathing as well as you could be. For instance, poor posture can lead to extra tension and stress in the body, which in turn affects your breathing. Sometimes, more specific treatment is required for thoracic ring dysfunctions and poor posture. 

I offer both in-person and telehealth appointments for people looking to improve their posture and breathing.  Together, we’ll work to find a pelvis and ribcage position that supports your diaphragm without causing you undue discomfort and body tension. Fascial release techniques using Tune-up fitness balls can also aid in releasing muscle tension, in turn allowing for a better breath, thereby causing more relaxation and calm in the body. Check out my online store to purchase your very own set of Self-fascial release balls for home use. 

If you have more questions about breathwork and finding physical stress relief, or if you’d like to book an appointment for more personalized care, contact me today!

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