Ever notice after a stressful circumstance that the body’s innate response is to take a deep breath? As soon as it’s over, you might say “Now, I can breathe a sigh of relief”? Or, perhaps, you meet someone who is uplifting and enjoyable to be around; you might describe that person as “a breath of fresh air.”
Breath not only gives life through delivering essential oxygen to the body’s cells for fuel and removing carbon dioxide, it also restores the body and mind to a state of balance when stressful experiences “take our breath away.”
BODYWORK AND BREATH
If you are alive, you experience stress. There is no way around it. Stress can show up in myriad ways whether good stress (first date, new job, travel) or bad stress (traffic, tight deadlines, losses). Either way, it’s not easy to navigate, in large part due to the body’s natural reactions designed to keep you safe no matter the nature of the stimulus. Fear, danger, and excitement are all perceived the same way on a physiological level. The sympathetic nervous system comes to our aid with responses that prepare us for action.
In and of themselves, stress responses are gifts even if they don’t necessarily feel that way in the midst of experiencing them. For example, shaking informs you that adrenaline is circulating throughout your body, providing energy should you need to stand up and face something— or turn and run away. Adrenaline tells the heart to speed up so that enough blood and oxygen can be pumped to the tissues, especially muscle tissue that is required to effectively move you to action. Heart rate and breathing also kick up a few notches to supply oxygen to the brain so you have better capacity for navigating the immediate threat, whether real or perceived. All these are good, right?
Well, maybe. The answer is yes, unless the stimuli are constant and not balanced with restoration and rejuvenation. It takes a lot of energy to maintain persistent action. Unfortunately we live in a very fast-paced world full of stimuli pelting us from every direction. Even without your conscious awareness of all these stimuli, your brain and body are aware and working hard to keep you safe and alive through all the twists, turns, and detours of life. How this translates into something worthy of your attention is when you begin to have unfavorable physical symptoms that negatively affect your health and well-being, such as agitation, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, neck and shoulder tension, and poor digestion.
Luckily, you have at least 2 powerful tools readily available to you: breath and bodywork.
During stress, breath can be shallow, meaning that instead of inhaling deeply, which can be monitored by the expansion of the rib cage and belly, inhaling is limited to the upper chest and neck area; the purpose for this is efficiency. The brain seeks ways to accomplish tasks as efficiently as possible, and breathing during stress is no exception. Since you need blood and oxygen to get to the brain and body tissues as quickly as possible, hormones speed up your heart and breathing rates automatically, and your breath becomes short, quick, and shallow. When this pattern is repeated due to persistent stress, the muscles responsible for assisting in elevating your ribcage during breathing take on a more primary role. The result is overused and overstressed neck and upper chest muscles. Headaches, along with neck and shoulder tension, tend to shortly follow.
Some of the most profound massage sessions I have experienced as a massage therapist are with clients who consciously breathe during the session. Receiving massage and bodywork is an exceptional way to cultivate conscious, deep breathing, soften those overworked neck and shoulder muscles (and the domino effect into other parts of the body), and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest state) to come forth and relieve the sympathetic nervous system of its guard duties—even if only for an hour. When I’m working with a client who is choosing to take deep breaths into the fullness of the ribcage and belly—front to back and side to side—and who is completely present with the relaxation of the experience, the muscles respond to touch and technique much more easily. It’s like butter under a heat lamp! Clients report better sleep, better digestion, less tension, and a more peaceful mind-set after a massage using deep breathing as a healing tool.
BRING BALANCE TO THE BODY
At your next massage appointment, talk to your massage therapist about breath. Let her know that you would like to incorporate conscious breathing into your session, and ask if she has any suggestions or, even better, if she is willing to take deep breaths with you. As a client, I find that when my massage therapist breathes deeply and consciously, it facilitates staying in touch with my own breath.
A breath of fresh air is all it takes to bring balance back to your body and being, and to reduce the symptoms of chronic stress. It’s an extraordinary and free “service” to add to your next massage or bodywork session, and it offers lasting results. And consequently, when you consciously choose breaths of fresh air, you become a breath of fresh air to everyone around you.
Want to be a breath of fresh air to someone who is stressed and suffering? Become a massage therapist at Indiana Academy of Massage, conveniently located on the north side of Indianapolis in beautiful Zionsville!
Article originally published in Body Sense magazine, Winter 2015