When we breathe in our ribs move up and out and the diaphragm contracts downwards pushing the abdomen out. These actions increase our chest capacity and help air into the lungs. On expiration the ribs drop, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards.
Commonly when we are feeling stressed, anxious or in pain it is common for our breathing to become shallow and quicker. We begin to use our upper ribs more than the lower ribs and under-use the diaphragm. This ‘upper rib breathing’ uses more energy, placing greater strain on the muscles in the neck and upper ribs. These structures then have to work harder and faster to maintain adequate gas exchange. Over time this type of breathing may become habitual and the neck and shoulder muscles tighten and shorten causing symptoms in these areas.
Are you over-breathing?
Signs that you are using this type of breathing may include tight neck and shoulder muscles and raising of your shoulders when you take a breath. If you are over-breathing you may also feel short of breath for no reason, feel dizzy or light-headed or experience palpitations or chest tightness.
Exercises to slow and control your breathing
There are exercises that you can do to encourage the use of your lower ribs or ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ and to slow your breathing rate. Firstly, lie comfortably on your back placing your hands on your abdomen. Relax as much as possible and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. You should be able to feel the breath gently pushing into your hands. Aim for a longer out breath to help slow and deeper breathing i.e. breathe in counting 1,2 and then breathe out 3,4,5.
A second exercise that helps control and slow breathing is breathing through pursed lips. Sit comfortably and hold your finger about 25 cms away from your mouth. Breathe in through your nose and breathe out through pursed lips so that you can feel the air on your finger. Do this 20 times and practise morning and evening. With practice you will see that your out breath increases by several seconds which is an indication that your diaphragm is being used more effectively. Over time you should also find that breathing in this way reduces anxiety and tension and increases your energy levels.