Do you “hold your stress in your shoulders”? Lately we’ve been having a lot of clients complain of shoulder and neck tension, which is almost always followed by explaining that this is where they “hold their stress”. One reason you may be experiencing this might be because you are breathing into your chest. There are two main types of breathing: belly breathing and chest breathing. But, how would chest breathing cause shoulder tension? Keep reading!

The main muscle that is meant to help with breathing is called your diaphragm. This is called a primary breathing muscle because it’s meant to do most of the work when you breathe. You also have secondary breathing muscles, which are meant to help with breathing while you are under physical stress. Without these, you wouldn’t be able to expand your chest enough to get enough oxygen into your lungs.

When you belly breathe, your diaphragm extends down into your abdomen. Your belly moves outwards and your rib cage remains relatively stable. Your secondary breathing muscles are located in between your ribs and in your neck and shoulders. These muscles are much smaller and not meant to be used all of the time. When they are activated, your chest expands and shoulders move up.

Unfortunately for us, our bodies are terrible at deciphering between physical and mental stress and our physiological response is the same to both. Your body may be confusing mental stress for physical stress (and therefore, think that your body needs more oxygen). Suddenly, you start to breathe into your chest. If this is done long enough, those small secondary breathing muscles can get irritated and you feel shoulder tension.

Next time you’re at work and you feel your shoulders getting sore, take a minute to notice your breathing patterns. If you are breathing into your chest try forcing yourself to belly breathe.

Not sure how to belly breathe? Here’s how:

Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest
As you breathe, try to get the hand on your belly to move as much as possible and the hand on your chest to stay as still as possible
When you can do that, go back and forth between taking belly breaths and chest breaths until you can confidently do both

Now focus on your reaction to the two different types of breathing! Take 10 breaths into your belly. Focus on your body’s reaction to it. A lot of people find that they’re more relaxed when they belly breathe. Now, try taking 10 breaths into your chest. You may find that you aren’t as relaxed, or that your mind starts to race a little bit. Ever heard the saying that when you’re mad or upset to “count to 10 and breathe”? This will often help because it changes your breathing pattern from quick and shallow chest to deeper and slower belly breathing.

Erica Abraham, B.Sc Kin (Hon), CSEP