Most of us are aware of our diaphragm and its importance to our breathing and how the diaphragm works constantly in our respiratory cycle. What is little understood is how our diaphragm breathing pattern has important and far-reaching influences on our stress levels and health. This article will describe the diaphragm and its function and how breathing can impact our coping with physical and emotional stress.
Anatomy and Function
The diaphragm is a thin dome-shaped muscle that sits at the base of the chest and separates the abdomen from the chest. It’s attached to your sternum (a bone in the middle of your chest), the lower part of your rib cage, and your lumbar spine.
It contracts and flattens when you inhale. This creates a vacuum effect that pulls air into the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and the air is pushed out of the lungs
Diaphragmatic breathing is defined simply as the contraction of the diaphragm muscle downwards into the abdomen to allow the lungs to expand downward and outward while taking a breath in. As the diaphragm drops down, it compresses the organs, fluid, and other contents of the abdomen. The compression of these will cause the pressure inside the abdomen to rise. This is what we call creating intra-abdominal pressure. This increase in pressure presses into the spine and the pelvic joints and provides natural core stability!..4
When Things Go Wrong
Periods of prolonged stress such with limited recovery time can alter breath control
in many ways.
This is characterised by shallower quicker breaths and predominantly upper chest breathing that does not allow the diaphragm to contract and relax fully. To move through its full range of movement. This is typical of a ‘fight or flight response’ of the sympathetic nervous system. This is an important and essential survival response, but work pressures, family issues, and other stressors can keep us in sympathetic overdrive. When mental and emotional factors such as fear, grief, anxiety, or depression start to impact how your breathing is regulated
Physical loading such as prolonged sitting with a slumped posture that is commonly seen in office workers can also affect diaphragm movement. This dysfunctional breathing pattern then becomes the norm.
This then causes overuse of muscles in the neck and upper body that are not primary muscles of respiration and adds to the build-up of strain and potential injury because the diaphragm is not allowed to do its job.
To improve diaphragm function, breathe easier, and more effectively, and help drive your autonomic response to a more calming parasympathetic bias follow these simple steps.
• Find a quiet place and start by either laying down with good neck support or sitting in an upright chair
• Relax the neck and shoulders and just pay to observe to your breath for a few moments
• Breathe gently in and out through your nose. No mouth breathing
• Rest your hands on your abdomen and feel the rise as you breathe in and the diaphragm lowers.
• Pay attention to how the rib cage expands outwards to the side and backward.
• Gently and slowly breathe out and feel the abdomen fall.
• Aim for an easy unhurried pace is 6 to 8 breaths per minute for 5 to 10 minutes.
• Try for daily practice
If you have difficulty finding that relaxed rhythm we are here to help.
Contact us at Northwest Physiotherapy Group and we can teach you.
Watch out for an update about how the diaphragm and pelvic floor can be involved in low back, hip, and even shoulder pain
- 3 shocking diaphragm reactions that stagnate patients progress
and steal therapist confidence. David O’Sullivan