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Breathing to properly manage stress

Breathing to properly manage stress

Because of the manual therapy applied, osteopathy is designed to restore the functionality of the body in order to optimize its ability of self-regulation, and this, through slow, controlled and deep breathing. However, due to daily stress, long work hours and lack of physical activity, do we actually breathe as we should? For many, the respiratory process would only be partial. It’s even safe to say that the majority of individuals have lost the ability to breathe using their diaphragm. And yet, breathing should be automatic, should it not? But breathing slowly, deeply, correctly is unfortunately not so simple. From an osteopathic point of view, what are the reasons for consulting and the repercussions of breathing inadequately?

Who consults an osteopath and why?


There are many reasons to consult an osteopath. Many years ago, the main reason for consulting an osteopath was for back and lower back pains. Today, those who consult do so because of neck stiffness and back, shoulder and arm pains. Keep in mind that we are here in a downtown Montréal work environment. Amongst these individuals, many works in offices, law firms, at the stock exchange, and in the financial/investment services where the pressure level is very high. This type of stress is often accompanied by headaches. Depending on the condition and symptoms of each patient, the role of the osteopath is to determine the cause and the domino effect in order to apply an approach that meets the specific needs of the person.


If you often have neck pains or headaches, here are two examples of the domino effect:

#01: The origin of your headache may come from bruxism (unconscious grinding of the teeth, frequently associated with stress and anxiety). The scenario: bruxism exerts pressure onto the jaw, causing a cranial compression, stiffness in the neck and a reduction in cranial mobility leading to a tension headache (head pain, crown or all over the head).

#02: Your headache may be the result of bad posture while working. Or another hypothesis: the top of your slumped back and your head advanced towards the screen forcing the neck in extension (just as if you were watching the ceiling constantly), your shoulders are pulled upwards and you have short and shallow chest breathing. This position gradually induces compression of the nervous and circulatory systems in the requested area. Your arm tends to go numb, your shoulder is painful, your neck is stiff, and the drainage of the cranial sphere is reduced and causes a tension headache.


Now ask yourself this question: do you ever think of breathing properly?


When relearning how to breathe becomes crucial

Today, a large percentage of people tend to have thoracic breathing. This type of breathing is associated with the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (the body prepares to react to danger by attack or flight); it works only the upper part of the chest and neglects the diaphragm. The lungs fill with air at 30% of their capacity. Superficial, irregular and halting, thoracic breathing gradually leads to stiffness in the neck and densification of the mediastinum. It causes a number of conditions, ranging from neck pain to the feeling of anxiety, shortness of breath, until pressure is felt in the chest, causing, in rare cases symptoms normally associated with a heart attack! In addition, it floods the body with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol—people suffering from chronic stress generally have elevated rates of cortisol in the blood. As thoracic breathing is incomplete, it decreases the amount of oxygen to the cells and impedes the elimination process of toxins in the body.


On the contrary, diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing exercise the diaphragm. By lowering the diaphragm to the abdomen, the lungs fill properly. It is also this rhythmic movement of the diaphragm acting as a piston which is so beneficial overall. It increases both venous and lymphatic circulation, which 1- helps with digestion and clears the area of the solar plexus, and 2- enables your parasympathetic nervous system (lower level of awakening, slowing of the heart rate, allowing for slow deep breaths) to dominate the sympathetic nervous system. Abdominal breathing is what is used when practicing yoga and meditation for a sense of well-being and the serenity it brings. Well-executed, abdominal breathing provides numerous benefits, allowing you:

  • to regulate the heart rate;
  • to release toxins from the body (accelerates digestion and regulates the intestinal transit);
  • to reduce stress and anxiety;
  • to increase the oxygenation of cells and of the blood;
  • to stimulate the production of endorphins;
  • to activate the nervous system.


How to breathe properly

Unfortunately, for most people, normal breathing reflexes are lost or forgotten. To learn how to breathe in a regular diaphragmatic way again, you must reprogram yourself, which can generally be done within a few months. As an osteopath, Pierre must also work on this plan with many patients. There are, however, resources available that can be used in the short term, even at work, to reap the benefits of a stress reduction. Amongst the suggested method, the cohérence cardiaque (cardiac coherence) by David Servan-Schreiber, a French physician, and neuroscientist who studied in Montréal, is “a way to fight disease, but also a way to manage daily stress [free translation]”.[1] Practising cardiac coherence regularly, every day, 3 times per day (ideally before meals), with 6 full breaths per minute for 5 minutes, allows our brain to understand that we are safe and that the body can be calm. Sit straight in a chair, feet planted on the ground, or lying on your back, every breath should last 10 seconds: breathe through your nose for 5 seconds by filling the stomach with breath, then breathe out through the mouth for 5 seconds by deflating the belly.


By combining osteopathy and conscious breathing, you are contributing positively to the management of stress, to healing from the pain, and to your overall well-being. Trading thoracic breathing for abdominal breathing will bring you back to a more natural and instinctive manner which provides positive effects on the body and the mind.


Pierre Gagnon

  • Diploma in Osteopathy from the Collège d’Études Ostéopathiques de Montréal
  • B.Sc. in biology
  • Ex-cyclist, member of the national team and two-time Canadian champion




[1] GUERIR.ORG (accessed March 12, 2019). Pratiquez la cohérence cardiaque, dès aujourd’hui, [online],


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