Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.Thich Nhat Hahn
Do you tend to feel short of breath easily when you exercise, or find yourself holding your breath under stress? Does focusing on your breath make you more anxious and not more relaxed? Do you have asthma or a tendency to get lung infections like bronchitis?
Of course, feeling short of breath can simply be a sign of being out of shape, and our breathing naturally responds to stress by becoming shallower temporarily. However, if you feel that your lungs are your “weak link,” you might be a “lung person.”
Jean Pierre Barral is an osteopath who developed a manual method called visceral manipulation, which helps organs to be more resilient and to function better. His book, “Understanding the Messages of Your Body” outlines physical and emotional patterns that he has observed with specific organs.
The lungs have classically been associated with grief in Chinese medicine. Unresolved grief can lead to fatigue because the lungs are the gateway to lifegiving breath and qi (life force).
In addition, Dr. Barral has noticed several constant personality patterns in persons dealing with chronic lung problems. “Lung persons” tend to be shy, lack confidence, feel fragile, avoid confrontation, and are afraid of taking up too much space. In a sense this personality can withdraw into their “shell” (rib cage), like a turtle. This person might also suffer from claustrophobia in small or crowded spaces.
On the other extreme, lung persons can be domineering and bullish, and take up “too much space.” Being aggressive can be a sign of too much carbon dioxide in the blood for those who have limited lung capacity.
Many persons who deal with panic attacks and chronic anxiety say that breathing exercises are the opposite of helpful. Focusing on their breathing might remind them of times it was difficult to breathe, such as past medical trauma (i.e., surgeries requiring anesthesia, asthma attacks, or pneumonia). Some of these medical issues may have occurred when you were an infant or toddler, or even happened before you had a narrative memory. Nevertheless, your body remembers.
There are ways in which our bodies and brains store memories of difficult or overwhelming events, causing compensations and restrictions in our bodies’ flexibility as well as our ability to be emotionally resilient. So, what can you do if you struggle with these issues?
Physically, there are simple exercises to help stretch your rib cage and torso. Swimming and yoga are both excellent activities that combine rhythmic breathing and lengthening, as well as rotation of your trunk and spine. A physical therapist can prescribe specific postural exercises to promote flexibility, like gently pressing your spine down toward the floor while lying on your back. A chiropractor or manual therapist can evaluate and treat specific spinal or rib restrictions that may influence your ability to expand your rib cage.
Breathing exercises can be helpful for many people. You can start by simply paying attention to your breathing, with curiosity and without trying to change it. Sometimes it can be easier and more relaxing to do this when lying on your back. You can place a small weight on your abdomen to help feel your belly rise and fall. Or you can simply place one hand on your belly and another hand on your chest to notice the expansion and relaxation as your breathe.
There is a reason that many meditation techniques focus on breathing. The breath and the diaphragm are connected to our vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming overall. However, if focusing on your breath is causing anxiety, it may be helpful to work with a therapist to find other alternatives.
In the psychological realm, if you have unresolved grief or can see yourself in the personality patterns mentioned above, a psychotherapist can help you look at the underlying sorrow or fears that may be affecting your ability to fully engage in life. Somatic therapists are specially training to work with the interface between physical and emotional patterns.
If you have questions about how somatic therapy may help you, reach out to us at Somatic Therapy Partners for a free consult.