Stress exists. If you are a living, breathing human on this planet, you will experience stress. There is no way around it. Yet, stress can show up in different ways. It can show up in healthy ways (new job, first date, travel) or not-so-healthy ways (traffic, deadlines, losses). Regardless, stress is not the easiest to navigate, largely due to the body’s natural reactions designed to keep us safe no matter the nature of the stimulus. Have you ever noticed how after you encounter a stressful circumstance, i.e. barely dodging a car accident or nearly dropping something made of value and breakable, that your bodies innate response is to take a deep breath once the potential threat has passed? Or as soon as you do something “big and significant” like giving a presentation or having a hard conversation, that once it’s over, you literally breathe a sigh of relief? Same goes for when you meet someone who is uplifting and enjoyable to be around; you might describe that person and their energy as a “breath of fresh air!” Breath not only gives life through delivering essential oxygen to the body’s cells for fuel and removing carbon dioxide, it also helps to restore the body and mind to a state of balance when stressful experiences “take our breath away!”
Fear, danger and excitement are are all digested in the same way on a physiological level. The sympathetic nervous system comse to our aid with responses that prepare us for action. Stress responses are gifts, even if they don’t necessarily feel that way while in the midst of experiencing them. Adrenaline tells the heart to speed up so that enough blood and oxygen can be pumped to the tissues, especially muscle tissue that is required to effectively move you to action. Heart rate and breathing also kick up a few notches to help supply oxygen to the brain so you have better capacity for navigating the immediate threat, whether it’s real or perceived. All these are good, right?
Well, to an extent. If the stimuli are constant and never balanced with restoration and rejuvenation, it will be a detriment to overall health down the line. Think about it, it takes a lot of energy to maintain persistent action! As we live in a world that is constantly moving and going and racing at such a fast pace, your brain and body are aware and working so hard to keep you safe and alive through all the twists, turns and detours that present themselves.
So how does this translate into your health and wellbeing? Headaches, agitation, anxiety, insomnia, neck and shoulder tension and poor digestion are all signals that your health is being affected negatively by stress.
The great news is, you have two powerful tools readily available to you during times of stress.
Breath & Massage.
When you’re stressed, your breath becomes shallow, meaning that instead of inhaling deeply (feeling your ribs and belly expand), your inhales are limited to the upper chest and neck area; the purpose being for efficiency. Your brain is always seeking out ways to accomplish tasks as efficiently as possible that breathing during stress is no exception. Overtime, your fast paced and shallow breathing can lead to overused and overstressed neck and upper chest muscles… as well as headaches, neck and shoulder tension.
Receiving massage and other bodywork such as acupuncture, Reiki, cupping and more – are of course beneficial in simply receiving, but the mots profound healing occurs when the client can consciously breathe during the session.
Breathwork during these sessions can help to cultivate deep breathing, helping to soften those previously mentioned overworked neck and shoulder muscles (as well as the rest of the body), and help to also trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (where your body can rest and digest). Think of the muscles being able to better respond to touch as if butter under a heat lamp – literally melting! This aids in better sleep, better digestion, less tension and more peace of mind after a massage using deep breath as a healing tool.
Try This Exercise!
The positive benefits you receive from a massage can be prolonged with very simple, daily breathing practice between sessions.
1. Get comfortable, either sitting in a chair with your feet in solid connection with the floor, or lie down on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing up. Feel free to use a small rolled towel under the curve of your neck, as well as a pillow under your knees to create the most comfort possible. Close your eyes.
2. Start by not changing anything about your breathing. The first step to changing anything is to notice it as it currently is. What do you notice? When you inhale, where does the breath stop before turning around to be exhaled? In the chest? The rib cage? The abdomen? This could also be a good time to notice any slight shaking, sweating, elevated heart rate, clenching in the jaw, etc. Be in tune with your nervous system responses as they are in the present moment.
3. Place both of your hands over the upper chest and clavicles. Feel the rise and fall of this area as you inhale and exhale. Do this for 3–5 rounds of breath.
4. Next, place your hands on each side of your rib cage, palms resting on the ribs and fingertips pointing toward each other (toward the midline of your body). Notice the expansion and contraction of your rib cage, front to back and side to side. How much movement is there? Breathe normally, simply observing without judgment, for another 3–5 breaths.
5. Place your hands over your abdomen. Notice it ebb and flow as well. Or, notice if it isn’t moving much at all. This is common, so again, no judgement. Repeat for 3–5 rounds of breath.
6. Now, begin to choose your breath. Each time you inhale, envision drawing the breath deep into your belly, so your belly expands up into your hands. As you exhale, gently use your abdominal muscles to lightly squeeze the air back up and out of your nose. Practice this for 3–5 rounds of breath.
7. Return your palms again to each side of your rib cage. As you inhale, expand the breath into your entire rib cage area. The ribs can expand front to back and side to side. Fill the vast space of your rib cage with life-giving air. Exhale, and use your rib cage (along with your abdominals) to gently press the air back out of your nose. Repeat for 3–5 breaths.
8. Finally, return your hands to the upper chest and clavicle area. As you continue directing your breath down into the fullness of your rib cage and belly, notice if anything has changed in the upper chest and neck. Does this area move less? More freely? With less tension? Observe for a final 3–5 rounds.
9. To bring the practice to completion, simply return your arms to your sides, palms face up, and notice your overall being. Likely you might feel as though you have released thoughts about your day, what you have to do this week, what you didn’t get done yesterday, etc. You might experience feelings of calm, relaxation or even sleepy. Or on the opposite side of the spectrum, you may feel energized and rejuvenated, ready to get up and continue on with the day!
Either way, through these simple breathing techniques, you can literally shift your state of being by using your breath to slow the heart rate, release muscle tension and calm hyperactivity.
Such a simple but powerful practice of breath.
By combining the breath with being present during your sessions, you will induce a state of health and well-being, needed to help restore your vital physiological functions.
Ready to relax?
At your next booking for massage, acupuncture, cupping or Reiki at Heal. in Altamonte Springs, let us know that you would like to incorporate breath work into your session.
All it takes to bring your body back into balance and wellbeing is the breath. Not only will you help to reduce the symptoms of chronic stress, it’s a beautiful and free “add-on” to include in your next massage or other body work session at Heal.
When you choose to consciously breathe positive, fresh air into the body, you then become a breath of positive, fresh air to everyone around you. That’s the beauty of the breath.
Let us know if you have any questions regarding breath work.
Note that all of the yoga classes offered at Heal. also incorporate some form of breath work (pranayama) into each class to help increase the overall relaxation response and so that you too can use the breath in daily life to ease your mind, calm your body and open your heart.
We’re here for you!