You’re driving home, and a car brandishing exactly the kind of bumper sticker that makes you seethe cuts right in front of you, almost causing an accident. You can feel your blood pressure rise and heart rate skyrocket as a burst of angry adrenaline hits your system.
Then, the moment is over, and although a stream of curses may offer temporary release, you want to bring yourself back to a place of genuine calm. How do you do it?
You might try telling your heart to slow down, but it doesn’t usually respond to orders. Fortunately, there is another way to invite the heart rate to slow: through your breath.
The Effects of Stress on Your Diaphragm Muscle, and Vice Versa
You’ve probably noticed this connection before—at times of stress or excitement, the breath tends to become shallow and quick as the heart rate also increases. Then, lying in Savasana or at other moments of deep relaxation, the breath is long and deep and the pulse slows down.
The breath is directly linked to both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. This means that it reflects and creates our relative states of stress and relaxation. By learning to control the movement of the diaphragm, we can use this connection to our physical and emotional benefit.
Through the breath, it’s possible to decrease our fight, flight or freeze arousal—which is linked with a huge range of deleterious health effects. It’s also possible to increase our rest/digest/repair state–and the mental clarity and calm that accompany it.
But what is the diaphragm, exactly? It is the muscle whose function we depend on the very most, moment in and moment out. The diaphragm is snuggled under the lower half of the ribcage, attached to the inner surface of ribs 5-10 in the front and 10-12 in the back, as well as the lumbar vertebrae.
The diaphragm is often described as an umbrella or octopus shape. But it reminds me of a Lego-man’s removable plastic molded hair…
Its central tendon (where the part on a haircut would be) attaches to the lungs. Contracting the muscle fibers of the diaphragm pulls the central tendon down, which pulls the lungs down, which sucks air into the lungs. This is also known as inhaling.
Conversely, an exhale is the relaxation of the diaphragm’s fibers. This draws the muscle upward and pushes air out of the lungs. The heart sits on top of the diaphragm (like a jauntily angled hat). Then below are where the stomach, liver and lots of other organs reside.
Often, the times we most need to slow down our sympathetic nervous system (to “turn on our off switch” as Jill Miller says) are, by definition, moments of stress: Trying to navigate a toddler having a tantrum through a crowded store; arguing with a friend or partner; hearing critical feedback from a boss; listening to the news; getting ready for an exam; being in labor—there are countless times when being able to draw on our innate understanding of the breath/heartbeat/stress connection can help us slow down, stay calm, and make skillful decisions.
If possible, though, the best time to practice this connection and gain a real embodied understanding of it is when you are not under duress. So your mind-body can integrate the information and have it immediately accessible in times of need.
Because the diaphragm is not a muscle that we can see, the Coregeous® ball is an incredibly helpful tool to find it. This soft, spongy ball will increase your proprioception, or bodily awareness, of where this muscle is and how it works.
Mapping the Circumference of Your Diaphragm
To get to know your own respiratory diaphragm a little bit better, lie down on your back with the ball under your lower back ribs and thoracic vertebrae—approximately where your bra/bro strap hits.
- Inhale strongly and hold the top of the breath, keeping your diaphragm contracted for a moment. Notice the feeling of this muscle contracted against the Coregeous® ball.
Now exhale slowly, noticing the muscle relax and soften around the ball.
- After a few repetitions on your back, turn over and place the ball in the archway under your front ribs. Repeat the same exercises, this time feeling the front of your diaphragm contract and press against the ball as you inhale, and relax and sink around the ball as you exhale.
- To complete your mapping of the diaphragm, do the same sequence on your right and left sides, with the Coregeous® ball pressed under your lower side ribs and external obliques.
Now that you have felt the circumference of the diaphragm in your body, you can attune yourself to the movement of this muscle as you mobilize the breath to down-regulate your heartbeat. A great way to do this is the simple practice of extended exhale.
Extended Exhale Practice
In a quiet moment, lie on the on your back, or sit in a supported seat, inhaling and exhaling through your nose with complete abdominal-thoracic (full torso) breaths.
- Count the length of your inhale and match it with the length of your exhale.
- Then increase the length of your exhale by 1-4 counts, for instance inhaling for a count of four, and exhaling for a count of six.
- In this quiet space, bring your attention to your heartbeat, either through feeling your pulse or interocepting (sensing within) the heart’s rhythm.
- See if you notice the way your heartbeat slows slightly with each extended exhale.
As good as it feels to practice the extended exhale breath in a quiet place, what makes it so powerful is that it can be practiced anytime, anywhere. Especially in those moments of stress when you need it most.
The Elastic Heart Breath Practice
Finally, let’s put this all together with a breath practice with Jill Miller called The Elastic Heart Breath.
When you attune to the movements of the diaphragm at a time of sympathetic nervous system arousal and invite it to slow down, your parasympathetic nervous system can take the wheel. Your stress response is given permission to chill out, and the flood of adrenaline and cortisol that accompany it slows down. Your prefrontal cortex, where thoughtful decisions are made, gets to take over for your lizard brain.
By deepening our felt awareness of the connection between the breath and the heart, we give ourselves a tool for managing stress in our daily lives and improving our long-term physical, mental, and emotional health.
Related Article: Respond Versus React: Restorative Practices for the Power Hungry
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