Even as I’ve been working to leverage the mind-body connection through visualization, guided meditation, journaling and other mind-influencing-the-body-type techniques, I’ve become more aware of the body’s influence on the mind.
Not just stuff like “cancer is a bummer and makes me sad.” More like, “my hip flexors are really open from yoga; I have less anxiety about pooping myself during this meeting.”
One huge revelation that’s been building over time and kind of crested today is around my breathing and how it shapes a lot of my mental and emotional patterns.
I’ve always had dysfunctional breathing and I’ve known it. When I caught this bout of the lung cancer I finally started to think more deeply about a possible connection between my lungs and my breathing.* Duh, right?
As a kid, my heavy sighing drove my family nuts but I it’s what I needed to do to get a full breath. Sometimes I needed to yawn. Sometimes there was no way I could get a satisfying breath. I was diagnosed with asthma but I don’t think I really had it; I’m pretty sure I was playing up the symptoms for attention. (My mom had a tiny streak of Munchhausen by proxy and I was her mini-Munchhausen.) I saw my first adult doctor about it when I was 18 but nothing came of that visit. I started to experience terrible air hunger in my early 20s and saw a few specialists but again came away with nothing but an inhaler. It was in my late 20s that my air hunger was attributed to anxiety and I quit caffeine, which helped a bit. In my mid-30s I started taking anti-anxiety medication, which helped more.
During the decades of that totally riveting History of Me Breathing I just made you sit through, I was doing it wrong.
From the time my brother and I would play army drill sergeant and yell at each other to “suck in your gut, soldier!!” through my becoming a vain chubby girl to my ultimate blossoming into a vain chubby woman, I was relying almost exclusively on apical breathing. Check yourself cause you might be, too.
Apical breathing “is a tense pattern of breathing in which the diaphragm muscle is used less, while the neck and shoulder muscles are primarily relied on for respiration. Apical breathing recruits the upper trapezius, levator scapula, scalenes and sternocleidomastoid muscles for every breath taken.” These ancillary breathing muscles are only intended to be used in case of respiratory emergency when the diaphragm can’t keep up and requires backup. Using them as your primary breathing muscles has consequences.
One consequence of apical breathing is reduced oxygen intake, according to the Institute for Integrated Healthcare. As you know from this blog, cancer itself can only thrive in poorly oxygenated environments which is why standby treatments like chemo, radiation, and Vitamin C injections are all oxidative.
Another consequence is shortened neck and shoulder muscles. “These tightened muscles can lead to temple headaches, upper back, neck and shoulder pain, and the emotional state of carrying the world’s stresses upon one’s shoulders.” Hmm. Maybe it’s not total coincidence that two of my biggest lymph node tumors were hiding out among the knotted cords of these calcified muscles.
Everyone’s emotionally constipated, unless you’re a sociopath or still in diapers. The price of maturity is that you repress much of your Genuine Self, and end up with a comfort zone that is suffocatingly narrow, respiratory dysfunction, and upper body pain.”My new favorite website, Pain Science
In Hong Kong, the technicians who take my chest x-rays or load me into the MRI machine are always screaming at me to “Relax! Relax!!” (Usually while their colleague is yelling at me to hold still.) I’ve accepted this as part of the charm of Hong Kong medicine and try to explain that “my shoulders are just like this.” They always have been. I save a fortune on shoulder pads.
But now I wonder, are my shoulders really just like this? After my daily yoga practice cracked through the first carbonite layer of rigidity, I started to experience a sour kind of pain when I stretched my neck and took a deep breath. For weeks it felt like battery acid was flooding my muscles but I think it was just extreme tightness or a freak out over blood and oxygen going where blood and oxygen haven’t gone in a long time.
Earlier this year I became committed to consciously using my diaphragm for every breath, rocking my Buddha belly and collecting compliments on my pregnancy. That action alone has changed my mental state and helped to reduce my anxiety and the metaphorical weight I carry. Over time I’ve also noticed a relaxing and microscopic lengthening of my neck and shoulder muscles.
Body influencing mind influencing body.
Following this early success I’m now taking occasional breathing classes from a former Buddhist monk who trained with Wim Hof. I’m eager to see how these advanced techniques might change my outlook. Stay tuned!
* Brad will want me to note here that part of my treatment for air hunger was him constantly nagging me to practice diaphragmatic breathing. Let the permanent Internet record show that he was right.