Raise a Hand if You’re in Pain:
How many of you have been feeling an increased level of pain creeping up over the past 3-4 weeks? How many of you feel tightness in your chest, and have been experiencing difficulty breathing and getting a full lung’s worth of oxygen into your body? Does it feel like your airways are working against you and constricting as you are trying to get oxygen into your lungs? Do you feel like you need to try harder and use your upper chest and neck muscles in order to merely breathe?
What Is Happening in the World?
Well, you are not alone, that much is for sure! Over the past few weeks, the entire world has been essentially frozen in a state of shock. Never did we actually think that something like the COVID-19 pandemic would be sweeping our nation, overwhelming our healthcare systems, leading to healthcare workers being sent into battle with inadequate supplies to keep themselves safe. We would never imagine sending our military into war without adequate ammo and armor, and yet, here we sit watching a war unfold upon our hospitals, where our own brothers and sisters are fighting for their lives while helping others to do the same. Is it any wonder then, that we as a human collective have been stuck in this widespread state of wonder, confusion, grief, and shock?
How Is This Affecting Us?
Although we are all going through this difficult and strange time together as a human whole, we are in fact very much isolated in our quarantines and lockdowns at the same time. Those who are lucky enough to live with loving family members and/or roommates may still have the luxury of safe human contact; however, what about those who are not as lucky, or even those who do not have a safe haven to call a home?
We are all stuck in a state of panic whether we realize it or not, and although the panic may not feel constant or imminent, it is still there at an underlying level. This is because even though we know that sheltering in place is going to keep us relatively safe from the loss of life or limb, what we don’t know is how long it will last, or what short-term / long-term / potentially permanent changes we are going to have to make to our lives just yet. This is all so new that we are mostly left in the dark, and when we do not have the tools to make informed decisions about how to conduct our lives, we feel as though we have lost control, and we as human beings do not tend to function well when we lose our sense of control.
Why Does Breathing Matter?
Did you know that when you use your accessory muscles of respiration, as opposed to the muscle you are supposed to be using when you breathe (i.e. your respiratory diaphragm), that you are essentially working out all of the tiny muscles in your neck, which leads to — you guessed it, neck pain and tension, which can work its way up into your jaw and head, and even down into your back and hips!
This can often make it feel as though there is a constant pressure on your chest and throat, which might almost feel like a vice is tightening around your neck and head. When this happens, you are no longer able to oxygenate your blood as effectively as you would if you in fact used your respiratory diaphragm to recruit more of your lung capacity to breathe. Therefore, your muscles and fascia are not receiving the nutrient and oxygen rich blood they so badly need, while the acidic CO2-filled blood lingers in your tissues, worsening your pain.
[Side Note: Might the difficulty that we are experiencing with breathing have anything to do with all of the individuals currently being affected by this respiratory virus around the world, and the fact that they are all struggling so terribly to breathe? Perhaps…?]
How Can I Breathe Effectively?
When you watch a baby breathing, particularly when they are asleep, you will see that only their belly rises and falls with each inhale and exhale, and that they are breathing only through their nose. However, oftentimes, when we observe ourselves breathing, we are not moving our bellies at all. If you place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen, and you practice doing a round of breathing exercises, and you notice that your top hand moves more than your bottom hand, then you’re doing it wrong.
What you want to envision is that your respiratory diaphragm is moving downward and outward with each inhalation, and moving upward and inward with every exhalation, while your upper chest remains perfectly still.
You also want to inhale and exhale through your nose. As much as you are going to want to exhale through pursed lips, performing your exhale with your mouth closed and only through your nose will actually help you to ever-so-slightly lengthen your exhale so as to slow your heart rate down, stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, and reconnect you to your slow diaphragmatic breathing.
What Else Can I Do to Manage My Pain?