Oh, please no! Not another fashion trend which stops us breathing! Didn’t the Victorians and their corsets teach us anything?!
3 things which come to my mind when I think about Victorian women:
1 – Anxious/highly strung (Think Mrs Bennet, Pride and Prejudice)
2 – Always fainting (Think upturned palm on the forehead)
3 – Hysteria and mania (Think locking them up in mental asylums)
It’s no coincidence that these poor ladies all wore corsets. My guess is a lot of their issues came from being unable to breathe properly for long periods of the day.
Their diaphragm completely unable to move. Forced to take small, fast breaths from their upper chest only. Creating actual changes to their biomechanics. Sounds like a recipe for a breathing pattern disorder to me……
Fashion trends throughout the years have brutalised women. In the words of Beyonce ‘Pretty Hurts’. She ain’t wrong! But, should we be sacrificing our ability to breathe?
The answer is HELL. NO.
Breathing is pretty important. When we do an emergency assessment on someone, we assess A for airway first. If your airway is occluded, you can’t breathe. Then we go to B for breathing. So, yeah. Top 2 are to do with breathing. Really important then. You probably shouldn’t mess about with your ability to breathe.
I’m going to focus on the diaphragm in this post. It’s one of the most crucial components of breathing well and most people don’t realise just how important it is.
Let’s start with the real basics……
What and where is the diaphragm?
It is a double domed sheet of muscle and tendon which originates from your lumbar spine, lower ribs and sternum (breastbone), separating your chest from your abdomen. It has holes for your aorta, oesophagus, and inferior vena cava but ultimately it keeps your guts out of your chest. Winner.
What is its job?
Technically the diaphragm has 3 functions. Breathing. Postural. And visceral (which means acting on other organs and internal functions). Let’s look at each function.
As you breathe in (inspiration) your diaphragm contracts and flattens, increasing the space in your chest (thoracic capacity), which generates a negative pressure and allows air to enter the lungs.
As you breathe out the diaphragm just relaxes. It’s passive. And it pushes the air out of your lungs. Simple.
It’s often forgotten that the diaphragm is a postural muscle. What that means is that it acts as a stabiliser during movement. If you have a weakness in your diaphragm you may experience lower back pain. In other words, if you don’t use it, you lose it - I’m looking at you upper chest breathers.
All physios, osteopaths, GP’s etc please consider this when you’re assessing and treating somebody for back pain. If you don’t address this weakness appropriately, you’ll never fully rehab them.
It’s not just low back pain either. If someone is using their shoulder and upper chest/back muscles to breathe they may well present with shoulder and/or neck pain. It’s well worth considering in your differential diagnosis.
Some people can slip into the chronic (long term) pain cycle. It’s no coincidence that many people who live with chronic pain also have breathing pattern disorders. A real chicken or egg scenario. Did the back pain cause a breathing pattern disorder or did the breathing pattern disorder contribute to the back pain?
It’s probably a good time to mention that and postural changes can affect how the diaphragm works. This has a knock-on effect on other structures such as the pelvic floor. They work together. Many pelvic floor issues or pelvic pain may be linked to diaphragm position and/or strength.
It really is a case of (singing) ‘the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone’. You get my point!
There are lots people don’t know about breathing pattern disorders but one really interesting thing is that reflux is common. The diaphragm acts as a sphincter to prevent upward movement of your stomach contents. My advice is, if you have reflux, it’s probably a good idea to make sure your breathing pattern is ok.
The diaphragm also aids peristalsis – moving your food through your oesophagus. And it helps get stuff out of the body – mainly faeces and vomit. You’re welcome!
When it goes wrong…
If you develop dysfunctional breathing it’s common to breath from your upper chest. Your diaphragm isn’t used properly and it weakens. That’s problem number 1.
Problem number 2 is that breathing from your upper chest can result in breathing more than your body needs and this leads to a drop in carbon dioxide (CO2). You breathe in more, you breathe out more, therefore you breathe out more CO2. This CO2 drop causes a number of physiological changes which makes returning to a normal breathing pattern very difficult.
The problem then becomes reinforced and this is when the common symptoms of breathlessness, anxiety, chest pain and palpitations arise.
The physiology changes leave many people in a constant feeling of ‘fight or flight’. And this further reinforces all of the problems relating to pain, feelings of anxiety and weakening of the diaphragm. It’s exhausting.
How do you fix it?
You have to use your diaphragm to breathe. Breathing from your diaphragm can reverse the ‘fight or flight’ response. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for relaxing and calming you.
It’s sometimes called the rest and digest system. It’s our reset button. Like pulling the plug out and plugging it back in again.
How do I check if I’m using my diaphragm?
Lie on your back, head supported with a pillow, with your knees bent.
Place one hand on your breastbone and one on your belly button. Your top hand should be still and your bottom hand should be rising on your in breath and falling on your out breath.
If it’s the other way round it’s likely you aren’t using your diaphragm as well as you should.
Make sure you are nose breathing. Close your mouth!
I’m breathing from my upper chest. Now what?
Firstly, don’t wear corsets or waist trainers or anything tight fitting around your abdomen!
Relax your shoulders – drop them away from your ears! If your shoulder muscles are tense your body already feels like it’s in ‘fight or flight’ mode. RELAX! Relax your jaw.
Close your mouth and breathe through your nose always.
Lay on your back with your hands on top of your head, bend your knees – it’s called ‘beach pose’ so make sure you look relaxed! This should automatically kick your diaphragm into action.
You can place a 1kg weight on your tummy for feedback. Some people find this helpful.
Stay here for at least 3-5 minutes. Ideally you should do two sessions each day for at least 10 minutes per session.
Once you can do this easily, try with your hands by your side. Then move to sitting and then standing.
Diaphragmatic breathing can take a bit of practice. Stick with it. It’s important that you get it.
By properly diaphragmatically breathing you’re not only breathing efficiently but you can use it to stay calm in the most stressful of situations. You can manage symptoms of anxiety and decrease pain. It gives you control. It’s basically a superpower!
Final thoughts ladies…….hold your tummy in for the picture being uploaded to the gram but relax and let it go afterwards! Let’s not make ourselves unwell to be skinny.
And waist trainers just aren’t the answer. I’m sorry, please don’t shoot me, but the best and safest way to get the waist you desire is good old-fashioned diet and exercise! Not only will working those postural muscles give you a fabulous silhouette, but your diaphragm will also be strong and working efficiently, ensuring you don’t develop dysfunctional breathing patterns and don’t have to come and see me!
If you have any questions or need more help drop me a message 😊