Breathing is something that is supposed to come naturally to us. On average we take approximately 22,000 breaths per day! However like most things, when we are under stress the body undergoes changes that can cause overload and dysfunction.
Breathing is no different, as when we are exposed to stress our body naturally reacts by trying to prepare us for the situation. During the “fight or flight” response our body recruits additional muscles to try and get as much oxygen into the lungs as possible to meet the anticipated demands ahead. In the fight or flight response our body prepares either to stay and confront a physical stressor, or to run away from it. Both options require fuel for the working muscles and oxygen supply is necessary to ensure that this fuel can be used accordingly.
The additional muscles that are recruited in this response are some of the key muscles that attach to the neck area and connect to the ribs. When they contract they allow for the rib cage to expand and fill with more air, thereby getting more oxygen in. Due to their attachments to the head and neck regions, they also tend to compress the neck and pull it forward creating excess postural strain.
In the short term our body can handle these changes, however when the stress becomes a chronic issue the body will adapt. Over time these changes create postural issues such as neck pain and headaches. Stretching out and releasing the tension from these muscles will give short term relief however the underlying problem still remains.
Take a deep breath in and think about what moves first – your chest or your stomach? If your chest moved before your stomach expanded you could be using a stress breathing strategy as your normal breathing pattern.