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Suck it Up and Suck it In

By Julie Dieterle

We’ve all heard those commands. Suck it in—stand at attention. Suck it up, real men don’t cry. Suck it up, be a man, don’t be such a wimp. Suck it in, you’re getting fat. Suck it in, your beer belly is showing.

What happens when we do either of those actions? Our bodies physiologically go into alert and even hyper-alert mode. If something scares us or shocks us, we gasp, taking in a quick breath. A major trauma, or life threatening experience such as child abuse or domestic abuse situations or bursts of anger (from another person) that are recurrent can cause the body to permanently stay in that ”trauma breath” or “high chest breathing pattern. I’ve seen adults with abdominal muscles so strong and contracted-at first you might think they had wonderful genes or control or had really done a ton of abdominal crunches; but when you watch them breathe it is all or mostly upper chest breathing.

On the other hand with loss of abdominal tension or tone, caused by post pregnancy weakness, post abdominal surgery flaccidity, poor digestion causing intestinal bloating or just sedentary life style (sitting) can facilitate poor breathing patterns allowing mostly abdominal breathing with no chest movement at all.

About 60% of possible oxygen intake can be done by abdominal breathing, but about 40% more can be added with a combination of chest and abdominal breathing.

According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, “Diaphragmatic breathing allows one to take normal breaths while maximizing the amount of oxygen that goes into the bloodstream. It is a way of interrupting the ‘Fight or Flight’ response and triggering the body’s normal relaxation response.” Engaging the abdominal “diaphragmatic breath” grounds us. Being able to belly breathe takes us out of “trauma breath” and says “It is ok to be in our body”. It activates a strong normal “cranio-sacral rhythm”, washing our spinal column with cerebral spinal fluid, calming and balancing our spinal nerves AND reducing tension from head to tail. One of the techniques taught to the police when in a tense situation, is to “belly breathe”, because not only does it center or calm them—it easily and quickly is transmitted to others in the crowd as a sense of relaxation and ease.

Chest breathing alone reminds us of the “puffed up” posture of animals readying themselves for battle, or a military cadet coming to attention in front of an officer. In these cases the belly is tight. It is defensive. It says “I want to look stronger and bigger (than perhaps I really am).

If you think about it, what does full chest and abdominal breathing remind you of? Open your arms and breathe in the fresh air of spring. OR Open your arms and welcome your grandchild into your arms. OR Open your arms and turn your face to the sun. It says “Ah life is good”. It says “I open my heart to…”

Shallow breathing can cause decreased mental clarity, since the brain is the most oxygen sensitive organ in the body.

I have had patients with sleep apnea, who have been put on CPAP machines, totally reverse complaints of loss of mental clarity, fatigue, muscle soreness, even epicondylitis and carpal tunnel symptoms, night leg cramps and restless leg syndrome. So, to me this points out that if we increase our oxygen intake, we can have a positive effect on body functions.

We under estimate the value of breath work. Even if confined to bed or wheelchair—you can BREATHE as an exercise. Believe it or not, try it for yourself. If you do a complete combined chest and abdominal breath with some effort, slowly (counting 5-12 with breath in, hold it 3-6 counts, fully exhale 5-12 counts, hold that empty lung and repeat sequence for a good 5 minutes—you will work your muscles well and feel like you have had a workout. Even slow steady breathing for 20 breaths can cause a shallow breather to feel light headed and have tingling in fingers and toes, so go easy and build up. AND remember according to (Sovik 2000) that it may take up to 6 months to replace acquired habits and ultimately change the way one breathes. It would be great to throw your arms open wide in love and joy as you inhale, too.

If you want to get more technical — (Jerath et al., 2006). They hypothesize that “the voluntary, slow deep breathing functionally resets the autonomic nervous system through stretch-induced inhibitory signals and hyperpolarization (slowing electrical action potentials) currents…which synchronizes neural elements in the heart, lungs, limbic system and cortex.” As well, investigations have demonstrated that slow breathing pranayama breathing techniques activate the parasympathetic (inhibitory) nervous system, thus slowing certain physiological processes down that may be functioning too fast or conflicting with the homeostasis of the cells.

The research is very clear that breathing exercises (e.g. pranayama breathing) can enhance parasympathetic (inhibit neural responses) tone, decrease sympathetic (excitatory) nervous activity, improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, decrease the effects of stress, and improve physical and mental health (Pal, Velkumary, and Madanmohan, 2004).


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