We’re going to look at how we can use the ‘360 breathing technique’ to reduce muscle tension and stress.
This way of breathing allows us to use the diaphragm and accessory breathing muscles optimally. It is named 360 breathing as the ribs and torso ideally expand in a 360 degree direction. This means that we’re not just breathing into our chest or our belly, but also expanding into our side ribs and back.
What is the diaphragm?
The diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle of the body. It is a parachute shaped muscle that separates the lungs and the abdominal organs. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts downwards, pushing the organs down and allowing space for the lungs to pull in oxygen.
So what really is 360 breathing?
360 breathing is a simple technique and is really describing how we ‘should’ and how most animals breathe naturally. Unfortunately, due to lifestyle factors, such as prolonged sitting, stress and poor posture we often forget this deeper breath that we inherently knew as children. The tendency is to only use our chest. Shallow breathing, or chest breathing does not use the diaphragm optimally and is common if we experience anxiety or are holding in our belly. Chest predominant breathing results in overuse of many of the muscles around our neck and shoulders. This is a major cause of pain and tension in this often problematic area. It may also mean our thoracic spine (upper back) can become stiff. The thoracic joints are designed to move, to allow expanding and contracting with each breath and if this movement isn’t happening, the joints become less mobile.
Using breathing to turn off the fight or flight reponse
Breathing optimally gives us a valuable tool to reduce stress and anxiety by turning off the body’s fight or flight response (stress) response. This is the body’s inbuilt alert system to prepare the body for potentially dangerous situations. This response is designed to help us in an emergency, however if we are constantly under stress, the fight or flight response may be switched on more than is helpful. Fortunately, we can change this! When we breathe properly, the changes in blood pressure stimulate the vagus nerve to turn off the fight or flight response and instead activate the ‘rest and digest’ (relaxation) response.
To break it down:
- The 360 breath stimulates the vagus nerve ->
- The fight or flight response is switched off ->
- The heart rate slows down, stress hormones production is slowed, amongst other calming effects.
When breathing is shallow or primarily in our chest, the body remains in the fight or flight response.
As you can see, there is close interplay between our breathing, the nervous system, perceived stress and muscle tension. 360 diaphragmatic breathing can be an extremely valuable tool in managing stress and muscle tension, particularly in the back and neck. It also gives us an opportunity to break some negative feedback loops that may have developed over time.
Now for the important part! How do I do 360 breathing?
- Place your hands around your ribcage, as if you were putting your hands on your hips, except higher.
- Inhale deeply through the nose – feel the air filling your tummy, rib cage, into the back and a little into the chest (360!)
- Exhale and allow the tummy, front and back ribs to contract back in towards the midline.