How stress affects your breathing and stability

Stuart Wakefield

Stuart Wakefield

Registered Kinesiologist

Stuart is a Registered Kinesiologist. He is the Director of Education in Canada for EBFA Global. Stuart focuses on movement longevity through sensory stimulation, fascial health, and foot stability.  

How stress affects your breathing and stability


How many times have you been stressed and someone has told you to take a deep breath?

Whether you are now working from home with back to back conference calls, finishing a project with a tight timeline or just trying to achieve a work / life / activity balance you are likely to be stressed during this long pandemic.

When your heart rate starts to increase, your blood pressure goes up and you might experience headaches. Those are some physical symptoms of stress in the body. Now what happens to the rest of your body and how can you make these symptoms calm down?

Our diaphragm, while often neglected when it comes to training, is deeply important for both stress control and stability.  When we’re stressed, our nervous system will go into a “fight or flight” mode, which will increase our heart rate, blood pressure, and create improper breathing patterns.

This could be one of the reasons for your low back pain or hip pain. Practicing regular diaphragmatic breathing will help you control your stress and re-establish proper core stability which will make your workouts easier and allow for safer and easier movement!

How are the diaphragm and the pelvic floor connected to stability and low back pain?

When considering stability and low back pain, we must understand how the pelvic floor and diaphragm are closely connected to both your hip and core stability muscles. All these muscles need to work in conjunction with one another to keep our hip, pelvis and spine stable during movements like squats, jumping and running.

Pelvic floor exercises are most often associated with postpartum rehab, or for those who’ve had urinary incontinence. This is definitely not the case!

Pelvic floor dysfunction can present in many different ways (in both men and women) and can be closely linked to hip and pubic joint injuries, as well as low back and pelvic pain. Several studies show a delay in the stability as well as atrophy of these deep core muscles in those that present with long standing groin pain.

This is especially typical in repetitive movements. Whether you’re a weekend warrior, or a consistent runner or cycler, our “global” movement muscles tend to take control and our “local” stability muscles like the pelvic floor become dysfunctional.

The diaphragm and pelvic floor are two muscles that connect via fascia. This means that they need to work in harmony with one another. During an inhale the pelvic floor relaxes, while during an exhale there is contraction. This harmony is continuous as we breathe and is the basis of this deep local stability. If one or the other becomes dysfunctional, there can be a change in how we breathe or how our pelvis is stabilized.

Types of breathing patterns

    There are two types of breathing patterns: 

    • Supra-diaphragmatic breathing.
    • Sub-diaphragmatic breathing.

    Supra-diaphragmatic breathing is associated with our sympathetic nervous system. This is our fight or flight state that comes with elevated heart rates and blood pressure. When breathing like this, you’re breathing above your diaphragm, typically by expanding your chest and elevating your shoulders.

    Compare this to a sub-diaphragmatic breathing pattern that is associated with our parasympathetic nervous system, our “rest and digest” state. This is where our heart rate slows down and blood pressure returns to a normal state as we’re using our diaphragm that allows for a 3 dimensional breathing pattern, with abdominal, rib cage and pelvic floor relaxation.

    What to do when you are feeling stressed?

    1. Lie on your back with a hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest.
    2. Inhale through your nose for 4-5 seconds and feel your ribcage expand and your abdomen rise.
    3. Try to avoid inhaling with a lot of chest and shoulder movement.
    4. Hold that breath for a second.
    5. Slowly begin to exhale through the nose, keeping your mouth closed. This exhale should take approximately 6-8 seconds.
    6. Repeat this for 2-3 minutes.

    We need to train our pelvic floor regularly to have the endurance to stabilize us during all types of movements and workouts. While many pelvic floor exercises are done while lying down, we need to be sure that we’re integrating those same exercises in standing positions. Our pelvic floor is an anti-gravity muscle and should be trained as such!

    Daily practice of both breathing and pelvic floor activation techniques are critical to maintain emotional and physical stability!

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    COVID-19: In response to the pandemic, WillKin has adapted the delivery of its services by now offering all of its programs remotely.