The effects of stress – and how massage can help

By: Katherine Pugliese, RYT, RMT

Katherine is passionate about relieving stress through massage and through self-care, which for her includes writing and drawing

Anxiety and depression represent two of the leading health concerns in our society today (Kreitzer, M.J. (2016), “Anxiety and Depression”). Many of us face daily demands and what at times can seem to be overwhelming challenges that cause uncontrollable feelings of anxiety, fear and sadness.

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Breathe Easy

Muscle of the Month: Diaphragm

“Use your diaphragm! Speak from your belly!” my drama teacher always used to say. The teenager in me had no idea what she meant, but now years later I find myself saying the same things to my clients.

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Just breathe…

Crystal Veinot , RMT - Ottawa Massage BlogBy: Crystal Veinot, RMT
Crystal Veinot, a registered massage therapist and Thai massage practitioner, sees the results of proper breathing in her clients. With a teenage boy at home, she too finds the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing.

We don’t often put a lot of conscious thought into the act of breathing as we move throughout our busy day-to-day routine…it just sort of happens.

As life ramps up and feelings of stress or anxiety build, our body can have some not-so-subtle ways to signal us to slow down by way of muscle tension, headaches, fatigue, or stomach upset.

What you may not realize is that in times of stress, our breathing pattern also changes. Understanding how to utilize diaphragmatic breathing can help change our body’s response to stress, which in turn positively affects our emotions or mental state aiding in our ability to cope in a fast-paced society.

What does stress do to our breathing?

Physiologically, the body responds to stressors by activating the sympathetic nervous system; heart rate, respiration rate and body temperature all increase. The mechanics of our breath also change as accessory muscles in the neck and shoulders are suddenly employed to lift the ribs up and out in order to maximize oxygen intake during a stress response. This pattern of breathing, often referred to as apical breathing, is meant to be short-term during a “fight-or-flight” response to get us out of harm’s way. However, chronic stress can lock us in this habitual shallow breathing pattern, resulting in insufficient air/gas exchange, with accessory muscles that are tense and overworked, potentially leading to a distorted posture, and eventually cascading into any number of other impairments.


What to do to prevent habitual shallow breathing?

We can help counter the negative effects of chronic stress by encouraging relaxation and taking our bodies into the “rest-and-digest” response of the parasympathetic nervous system. This will bring the body into homeostasis. Although we have no conscious control over the sympathetic response our body has to stress, we can manipulate our parasympathetic response in times of stress to help induce relaxation. The most effective method is to alter our breathing pattern from apical to diaphragmatic.

How does the diaphragm play a role in relaxation?

The diaphragm, which is a dome-shaped muscle, contracts and flattens out. As this happens the volume within the lungs increases, thus decreasing the pressure within, causing air to rush in. Conversely, as the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its dome-shaped position tucked up under the ribs, volume within the lungs decreases, resulting in an increased pressure, causing air to be pushed out or exhaled. On a physiological level, movement of the diaphragm created by engaging in a deep breath stimulates the vagus nerve; the cranial nerve responsible for supplying approximately 75% of the parasympathetic nerve fibers to the rest of the body.

The end result of this stimulation is a decrease in heart rate, a drop in blood pressure and cortisol levels and a boost in the immune system.

How to take a diaphragmatic breath:

Watch the video below to learn how to diaphragmatic breathe.

Some Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve digestion
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve immune system
  • Helps to detoxify the body as carbon dioxide is expelled more easily
  • Decrease muscle tension through neck and shoulders (accessory muscles) leaving the diaphragm to do the majority of the work
  • Decrease stress by taking the body from a “fight or flight” response to “rest and digest” response
  • Encourage a better sense of well being

The breath is a self-empowering tool you have with you all the time. Implementing a daily practice of diaphragmatic breathing along with regular massage will aid in relieving stress and releasing muscle tension, thus facilitating a more natural and full breath and improving overall health.

So, whether you are waking in the morning, driving in heaving traffic, racing to your yoga class, late for a meeting, or heading to bed……just remember to breathe!