You probably don’t think much about how you breathe. But the way you breathe can have a huge effect on your stress level. Which means you can use your breath as a tool to calm down.
When stressed, most people turn into chest breathers. They tense up and breathe shallowly from their chest, instead of deeply from their belly. This shallow breathing then tells the brain, “All is not well, keep being stressed!” It can become a vicious cycle.
If you’re chronically stressed, you’ve probably learned to chest breathe. So, even when you’re relaxed, you don’t breathe deeply. Chest breathing is fast, shallow, and jerky. It fills mainly the upper lungs. And it’s not good for you. During chest breathing:
- You take in less oxygen—which can trigger the stress response
- You breathe out less carbon dioxide—which can leave you sluggish
- Your neck and shoulders tense up—trying to help you breathe
Belly breathing, on the other hand, involves taking deep breaths from the belly. It works your diaphragm and fills your lungs fully. This is the way babies breathe. This is our natural way of breathing. And it’s good for you. Belly breathing:
- Triggers your body’s relaxation response
- Allows you to take in more oxygen and fully breathe out the carbon dioxide
- Lets your neck and shoulders stay loose
The next time you’re stressed, try this simple belly breathing technique to calm down:
- Sit or lie down comfortably.
- Rest one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose—notice your belly rise under your hand.
(The hand on your chest should stay still.)
- Breathe out through your mouth—notice your belly fall under your hand.
- Take two more deep breaths like this.
- Now just breathe naturally for a while, noticing your belly hand rising and falling.
- Notice when you start to feel calmer.
Simple, right? But powerful. If this exercise feels unnatural, you’ve probably learned to breathe from your chest. Practice it a few minutes a day to retrain your breathing.
After many years of using my own name for my practice, I decided it’s time my business got a name of its own. So I’m proud to introduce Conscious Soma, a practice focused on Craniosacral Therapy and other Somatic Bodywork that supports whole-person healing.
Soma means body. So, somatic literally means “of the body.” But when we’re talking about bodywork, these two terms have come to mean much more.
Soma refers to your own felt-sense of yourself. It’s your experience of your body as sensed from the inside, rather than the “idea” of a body as viewed from the outside.
Somatic bodywork, then, focuses on your inner perceptions and experience. These can include physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts, as well as your awareness of your body in space and any “null zones,” areas where you lack sensation or awareness.
When we pay attention, without judgment, to all of your inner perceptions in the moment, the body can tell the full story of an injury, pain, or problem. Often, this story has some surprising roots. And by acknowledging them, much deeper healing or transformation becomes possible.
Somatic bodywork deals with issues like:
- Trapped emotions: Suppressed emotions get stored in our tissues where they can cause physical problems. I’ve seen cases where tissue damage, such as arthritis, has had a trapped emotion at its core.
- Core beliefs: If you have a deeply held belief, say that you have to struggle for everything in life, it can literally shape your body. In this case, the muscles may tense up and take on a fighting stance, always ready to defend against the world.
- Guarding: Many clients I touch are muscle-guarded. No matter how long I work, their muscles stay tense. Why? Sometimes the tension is helping the client avoid feeling. Emotions aren’t just in our head. They are felt through the whole body. And muscle tension is a powerful way to suppress painful emotions.
- Loss of body awareness: When asked to focus on a body part—like the pelvis—some people will not be able to feel it from the inside unless it’s hurting. They’ve removed their awareness. The result is a disconnection—from themselves, the ground, or their own sense of power and purpose.
- Trauma: Like emotions, trauma is not just in the head. It’s held in the whole body and especially in the central nervous system. Trauma can cause chronic stress and anxiety, hypervigilance, muscle tension and a host of other bodily symptoms.
Somatic bodywork is a powerful way of bridging body and mind. Because ultimately, this thing we call “body” and this thing we call “mind” are a singular, exquisite intelligence, of which we can be more or less conscious. I vote for more.
If there’s one issue I see over and over in my practice, it’s back pain. Usually, it’s caused by some short-term, mechanical problem with the muscles or joints. Perhaps a muscle has been pulled. Or a tendon is inflamed. Nothing that won’t heal, but it sure hurts. Unfortunately, for many people this back pain becomes a recurring problem.
So, what sets you up for this type of pain? And what stirs it up or keeps it coming back? Here are some of the top culprits I see in my practice. Do any of them apply to you?
- Stress: Stress can play a huge role in back pain. Stress tightens up your muscles, which can make them sore and achy. And if there are other issues—like postural strains—stress can easily tip the balance into spasm and pain.
- Too much sitting. Prolonged sitting causes muscles in your back, hips, and thighs to tighten up. Over time, this puts pressure on your discs and can set up the muscles and joints to be easily injured by something like a poor movement.
- Lack of exercise: Without enough movement, joints and muscles stiffen, tissues don’t get enough blood flow, and muscles grow weak. If you’re a weekend warrior—sit all week, play hard on weekends—you’re especially prone to back injuries.
- Emotional pain: When you resist or suppress a painful emotion, it doesn’t go away. Your body stores it in your tissues. This keeps is out of your awareness, but it causes other problems, like chronic muscle tension and guarding.
- Postural problems: Poor posture puts incredible strains on your back and neck. For instance, you may not realize that those rounded shoulders are overstretching your low back and causing your back and hips to tighten up.
- Overuse & poor body mechanics: Muscle strains can happen suddenly, but many build over time. Repetitive motions like bending or swinging a hammer can slowly stretch and tear tissues, especially if you use poor body mechanics.
Did any of these culprits ring true for you? If so, you’ve probably already recognized some changes you could make to feel better. Stay tuned to future articles, too, where I’ll look at simple things you can do to defuse stress and tension before they become pain.