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What’s the relationship between stress, chronic pain, and your breathing?


Let’s start by examining what happens in your body when you feel “stressed.”


Here’s a brief run-down of what you might be feeling:

  • There’s tension in your gut. You may even experience digestive upset with stomachache, bloating, diarrhea, etc.
  • Your shoulders hunch and the space between your ears and your shoulders decreases. If you feel very stressed, you might practically be wearing your shoulders like earrings.
  • Your neck muscles feel tight enough to bounce a quarter off.
  • Your posture resembles the letter “C” with your head forward, and your upper back and shoulders rounded- (Oh, wait, you look like that for hours every day as you type on your computer, drive your car, or scroll through your phone? Hmmm…wonder what affect that has on your nervous system?)
  • Your breathing is fast and shallow, and as you breathe, your upper chest moves up and down, while your belly is barely moving at all.


And if you suffer from chronic pain, your body probably reacts in a similar fashion, and the pain makes relaxation nearly impossible.


Let me start with a (very) quick explanation of the autonomic nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system has both a sympathetic and parasympathetic response. (It also includes the enteric nervous system, but we aren’t going to talk about that today.) The sympathetic part is famously referred to as the “fight or flight” response; it’s our body’s way of protecting us from danger or threat.


It’s easy to see why our bodies react the way they do when the sympathetic nervous system is aroused – we are preparing to run or fight, so we need tense muscles, poised for action. We need rapid breathing so we can get away fast. We want to protect our vital organs, so we assume a protective, rounded posture.


On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is referred to as our “relaxation” response; it helps us with things like digestion and reproduction – those “nonessential” things that we can only really focus on when you don’t feel like we are under threat. This is the state required for our bodies to take on the job of repairing damaged cells.


Here are a couple problems: for one, many of us spend a lot of time in this stressed-out posture just going about our daily business (or leisure); which in itself could be signaling our nervous system that we are under threat. Plus, being in this shape makes it difficult to take a deep breath, which requires full use of the diaphragm – our main respiratory muscle – to move the belly in and out. And after years of poor respiratory dynamics with not enough activation of the diaphragm, chest breathing becomes our go-to, and belly breathing (which activates the parasympathetic response) becomes harder and harder.


The trouble is, poor breathing mechanics can keep our nervous system stuck in a sympathetic state. In other words…


Stress causes our bodies to react in a way that affects our breathing, and habitual “chest” breathing, can lead to our nervous system responding as though we are always under threat. Vicious circle complete.


Add chronic pain into the mix, and the problem is compounded.


Furthermore, ”stress” breathing can also cause pain in the upper back, neck, face, headaches, even numbness or pain in the arms or hands, due to overactive muscles and fascia creating compression in and around the neck.


Thus feeding the cycle of chronic pain even more.


So how do we break this vicious circle and reclaim our proper breathing mechanics, the one that relies on the diaphragm’s ability to move up and down, so the belly moves in and out, therefore helping to shift us into a parasympathetic, relaxed state where our bodies have the capacity to heal.


Like so many things in life, the first step is awareness. Start to notice your breathing and the state of your body and learn to release habitual, unnecessary tension.


But sometimes just telling yourself to relax isn’t enough.


That is where tools like massage can be very helpful. Self-massage in particular is an empowering, inexpensive, easy way to release chronic tension in muscles that are overworked by chest breathing or excess stress, such as the pectoralis minor, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and upper trapezius. Palpation with Yoga Tune Up® balls, for instance, changes the resting tone of the muscles and fascia and releases unwanted contraction. Rolling also helps to release the “feel-good” neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, which aid in relaxation.


Once our tissues are relaxed, our posture improves, and so can our breathing mechanics.


When you relax your neck and shoulders, you can literally breathe easier.


In the video below, I share a simple technique using the Yoga Tune Up® Alpha therapy ball for releasing chronic tension in the neck and shoulders to help reduce chest breathing and enter a more relaxed state where your body can heal.