Breathing is a fairly simple act. You rarely need to think about it. You inhale in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide effortlessly from the moment you’re born. In fact, newborns are probably the best breathers out there. Infants and young children seem to effortlessly use their main muscle of respiration, the diaphragm. When you watch kids breathe, their little tummies move outwards when they inhale and move inwards when they exhale. This is because our diaphragm, which is a dome shaped muscle under our ribcage, contracts downwards to allow more space for our lungs to expand. Creating this space draws air into the lungs. To exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its dome shape, decreasing space in the lung cavity and expelling the air. When children need to take deeper or faster breathes, they will use their accessory breathing muscles located in the neck and chest, which help expand the rib cage by pulling up on the ribs themselves.
As we grow older, the roles of the diaphragm and accessory breathing muscles seem to switch places…that is, many adults start relying primarily on the small accessory muscles to breathe and the role of the diaphragm becomes secondary. Rarely do we see an adults abdomen expand outwards to breathe. We are far more likely to witness the muscles in the neck contracting and the chest rising up and down.
There are several reasons for this role reversal. To breathe properly, one needs to embrace a few moments of having a little pot-belly while inhaling to allow the downward movement of the diaphragm. In a society that encourages flat bellies, adults will change their breathing muscles to avoid rounded bellies. Thus starts the reverse-breathing style, in order to keep the belly flat while breathing, we start using the neck and chest muscles to expand our ribcage. Habits are quickly created and before long, people normalize reverse-breathing.
There are other reasons why people loose the natural belly-breathing of childhood. Those who suffer from asthma, allergies or emphysema struggle to get air into their lungs and will use all muscles necessary to achieve a good lungful of air.
What is more pervasive in our culture, however, is the way people breathe when they are stressed. Stress triggers the release of adrenalin which causes an increase in breathing and heart rate. This means your body wants to get in lots of air quickly. Using your accessory muscles can help with these demands.
With the overuse of your secondary breathing muscles, over time, your neck and chest muscles can become tighter and may start contributing to problems such as thoracic outlet syndrome, trigger point pain in your arms, chest and neck, and neck kinks.
So, what can we do about this? Embrace your natural ability to breathe properly. Here are 5 steps to help you breathe like a kid again!
1) Lie down in a comfortable position and place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest
2) Slowly inhale through your nose – envision your diaphragm moving downwards into your belly space as air fills your lungs. Your belly hand should be rising up. Your chest hand may also rise, but not significantly.
3) Slowly exhale through your mouth – your diaphragm is now relaxing back up into the ribcage space and your belly hand is descending back to neutral.
4) Repeat. Start with 10 breaths and gradually increase the amount.
5) Practice often!
The more you have a chance to practice abdominal breathing, the more you will change your reverse breathing habits. Eventually this breathing will feel more natural and you can start incorporating it into your life. This is a fantastic technique to use if you are feeling anxious, angry, stressed or nervous. The more you breathe like a kid, the more balanced your breathing muscles will be and it might even increase your ability to relax!
While there may be information related to certain medical conditions and their treatment on this website, please consult your doctor or other healthcare professional to determine if a treatment described in the website is appropriate for you.
Kirsten Hammond is a Registered Massage Therapist and owner of Evolutions Massage Therapy Clinic- Saanich, BC & Sidney, BC & Brentwood Bay, BC