Stress and Breathing. Stress Series: Part 2

Did you know that stress and breathing are very closely related? The structure and function of our respiratory systems are sublimely linked and underpin every aspect of our health and well-being.

Stress and breathing. Normal, relaxed breathing involves the movement of our diaphragm muscle at the bottom of our rib cage. This domes and flattens causing the change in pressure our lungs require to move air in and out. The ribcage supports the lungs and diaphragm and helps create this changing pressure differential.

When we are under stress and our “fright, fight or flight” mechanism is activated, we move from normal breathing to shallow, fast upper rib only breathing. This replaces the strong diaphragmatic / low rib mechanics with the relatively weak upper rib muscles and a type of hyperventilation may occur.

The upper ribs and associated muscles are really only designed to assist the diaphragm in its action. Their main job is to provide movement for the neck and head. When we engage in upper rib stress breathing we are asking these structures to carry out a huge task for which they simply have not been designed to do. The greater time we spend in this stress mode of breathing the more fatigued these structures become. This may lead to poor oxygenation of our lungs and body as well as a multitude of musculo-skeletal dysfunctions. These may include a chronically sore upper back and neck, headaches, fatigue, poor concentration and anxiety.

The physiological consequences of upper rib breathing may be significant. As we breathe faster we change the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in our lungs and this in turn may change the acidity of our body. Many vital biochemical reactions depend upon a closely regulated body acidity and so these may be adversely affected.

The trouble is that the more time we spend upper rib breathing the more likely that this pattern of breathing will become established as normal and replace the diaphragmatic mechanism even in a non stressed state. It is therefore essential that we not only recognise when we are stressed but also when we are stress breathing and try to consciously return ourselves to diaphragmatic breathing in order to re-establish that healthy pattern. This is the first step we can take to controlling our stress.

Keep diaphragmatic breathing!

Don’t suffer pain, book an appointment here or, if you would like any more advice, please give us a phone call and we will do our best to help.

David and Jeannie Baskeyfield

and the Osteopathic Natural Health Team

Visit and the American Institute of Stress for breathing techniques to help.

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