Breathe through your belly

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"She may never breathe again, but thank gawd she landed a man!"

As you’ve probably heard, women suffer anxiety, or at least seek treatment for it, more often than men. Anecdotally, I think it is possible women experience anxiety more. After all, there are a number of psychiatric conditions men are more prone to. I think men are frequently stressed, but stress is the condition of knowing what you need to do, and having to nearly kill yourself to get it done. Anxiety is the condition of not knowing what it is people expect from you, and that no matter what you do, someone’s going to hate you for it. I think the latter is more common in the experience of women (and perhaps men who fall outside the “able-bodied, white, heterosexual, etc.” demographic).

But I recently stumbled onto the most ludicrously simple and aggravating factoid I’ve come across in years: breathing through your chest can trigger anxiety. It makes your autonomic nervous system – the instinctive “fight or flight” system – think you’re trying to hyperventilate so you can run from some imminent threat. This system responds by releasing loads of adrenaline to help you run or fight, but because you’re not in actual physical danger, you’re left with unneeded adrenaline running through your body like a drug. This can bring on acute panic attacks or chronic anxiety in people.

As soon as I read this, I realized, yep, I’m a chest-breather. I was taught as a girl to suck in my stomach, put back my shoulders and stick out my chest while I breathe. It was presented to me as good posture, but it came to me alongside inordinately long 1980s discussions of who had the flattest stomach and how important a flat stomach was for a girl and how disgusting it was if she had that little curve to the belly that later became so cute and fashionable, after I was all grown up and my body image was seriously fucked up. (I was actually pissed in the 90s when I saw the unfashionably curvy ass I had carried through my teen years being applauded on Jennifer Lopez’ backside. What the hell, people? I had that ass, and even doctors were nagging me to lose it?) I suspect this has more to do with showing off our tits and looking like we have cute little tiny waists, because what’s a life free of anxiety if men think you are unsightly, right? (That would be sarcasm, yes.)

This was all coming from the internet, so I recently decided to see a psychiatrist to deal with my own lifelong anxiety issues. She who confirmed that, yes, women are generally taught to breathe through their chests, and yes, this does indeed contribute significantly to anxiety.

Anyone care to argue that society’s pressure on girls to look a certain way does not constitute malicious disregard for our health and well-being? Try it and I will bring up corsets, I swear.

Comments

  1. SunlessNick says

    I had no idea that chest breathing did that. Though it slots depressingly into place with all the other points you made.

  2. Anemone says

    I remember my phys ed class being told to suck in our guts in middle school. And stand up straight! Though I think seeing photos of models with very thin waists and sucked in guts is probably enough to get most girls sucking it in.

    I learned about belly breathing 20 years ago when I started going to a massage therapist (I’ve also been taught it in voice classes and see it in books on physical fitness), but I still have to keep reminding myself to slow down and breathe properly. Added bonus is better aerobic capacity.

  3. The Other Patrick says

    um… I like corsets. Not as everyday outfits, but still.

    Otherwise: interesting, though I don’t think the anxiety effect was a conscious effect, more a byproduct that actually fits traditional gender characteristics.

  4. Jen says

    Or high-heels??!

    me and my sister argued with a couple of friends of ours about high heels a few months ago.
    We were saying we were annoyed with how many different varieties of high-heeled shoes you could buy in high-street fashion stores and how few choices it left for people who prefer to wear flats/lace-ups.
    And I said I couldn’t believe in this day and age how much women are encouraged to wear high heels even though it is essentially a form of self-harm. They aren’t liberating if they are cripplingly painful are they? all they could say is ‘men like women who wear high heels better’. I’ve never met this mythic majority and I doubt these girls had, which is sad, they’re basing the way they dress on what a possibly non-existant arsehole prefers them in.

  5. says

    Patrick, I said it demonstrated malicious disregard for our health and well-being, not a carefully planned conspiracy.

    Jen, I can’t imagine why women just accept high heels as a standard. I actually like heels up to 2 inches, max, when they’re supportive – I find they can be easier on my feet and legs than flats. But anything above that, I feel like I’m teetering on my tiptoes, and there’s a reason I don’t go around doing that all the time, so why would I put on shoes that force the issue? And you’re right – there’s so much more available if you are willing to wear high heels. Once I eliminate everything above 2 inch heels and outside my size range, I’m lucky to find three pairs of shoes of any description to choose amongst.

  6. AmyMcCabe says

    I would like to add that society also gives and is more approving of outlets for men’s stress than outlets for women.

    Men are more encouraged to be involved in sports. It is more acceptable for men to have a night drinking and relaxing and watching a game. It is more acceptable for men to get angry or lose their tempers. And while it is totally wrong, society still overlooks violence in men far too much. These things are all discouraged in women. Unless you happen to find shopping calming (and can handle the financial strain of destress shopping), you’ve got much fewer socially acceptable outlets from stress as a woman.

  7. sbg says

    I actually tried chest breathing very briefly in my mid-teens. I had a sister ten years older than I who I looked up to, and noticed that she always, always had her stomach sucked in. I didn’t ask her why. I didn’t have to; all I had to do was look at my (socially unacceptable) rounded belly and her flat one.

    Yeah. It didn’t last. I think I spent maybe one miserable day trying to keep my abdomen muscles tight and my belly in, and was either too lazy or too me to keep it up.

    I’m actually not surprised to learn that chest breathing can exacerbate (or cause?) anxiety. Couple that with the unnecessary stress of being ever-conscious of your belly…and about a billion other unnecessary things implied to be necessary, it’s no wonder the instances of anxiety are high.

  8. Elee says

    Aren’t yoga breathing techniques concentrating on the belly as a center? It is a seat of one of the important chakras. I don’t care much for most of the neo-mystic crap, but it definitely works for me, I was actually pretty surprised how calming an effect even belly-rubbing has, because I was falling asleep almost instantly. Though I would argue, that putting back the shoulders and sticking out my chest is wrong, just the stomach thing. Standing straight comfortably (meaning not like at the military parade) puts the center of gravity on to the lower back instead of the shoulders.

  9. says

    Yep, Elee, and yoga can be tremendously helpful for anxiety – if your instructor doesn’t unthinkingly assume you are already breathing through your belly and focus on getting you to breathe into your chest, as mine did. I was doing it wrong for a long time, and didn’t realize.

  10. Robin says

    Between ballet, marching band, and general societal pressures, I had what was considered very good posture in high school, including the tummy sucking. I do still find myself defaulting to that on my more self-conscious occasions, but I’ve done enough yoga / pilates / relaxation breathing in the interim that I can counter those instincts when I need to.

    I even had a boyfriend in college who found it really sexy to put his hand on my belly to feel the deep breaths. (Too bad he was kinda nuts in other ways.)

  11. says

    The Other Patrick said,

    “Um… I like corsets. Not as everyday outfits, but still.”

    Yeah. Plenty of men like women to dress in outfits that accentuate certain curves and attributes. We’ve been told. Doesn’t mean those outfits aren’t uncomfortable and bad for your health.

  12. says

    There’s nothing wrong, once in a while, with dressing or acting in a way that’s uncomfortable and bad for your health–if *you* want to, because it’s fun, and you know what you’re doing.

    I like wearing corsets and high heels on occasion. I also like skiing and skating, Cadbury Creme eggs and alcohol, loud music and fast cars. I don’t think indulging in any of these things is wrong, but none of them is something I can do all the time; when society says that one or more of these things should be the default mode for a particular group of people and covers up the health problems they cause, society is doing something very wrong.

  13. says

    Re: corsets and high heels. I’m also troubled by not being able to think of a single occasion in which I’ve heard of a MAN being asked to dress up in something that’s not conducive to his health so a woman can find him more arousing. And this is in direct contradiction to the stereotype from the same source that says women aren’t so sexual and all men are hornbeasts – so, shouldn’t it be men doing anything they can to make themselves more alluring to women rather than the other way around? Somehow, no. We’re supposed to injure ourselves to get men to do something to us that we’re not even supposed to like? Are we still in doublethink here, or are we going for a triple? ;)

    Now, I don’t mean to pick on you, Izzy, but I’m curious? Why do you like wearing corsets and high heels? Chocolate is delicious. Alcohol relaxes you. Loud music and fast cars have a sensuality that I can totally understand enjoying. But what’s fun about corsets and high heels? The discomfort? Or the effect it has on the male gaze? Because how can you truly be doing something for *you* if at heart, it’s about affecting someone else?

  14. says

    Jennifer: Not a problem. I actually *do* like being the object of specific manifestations of the male gaze; bluntly, I like knowing that people I find physically attractive really want to fuck me. (And usually these are the men who dress in a way I consider attractive.) Sometimes this leads to sex, sometimes not, but I like sexual tension. It’s a good time.

    And I’d argue that sometimes doing something for you does involve getting a reaction from someone else: I like flirting and dressing up the same way I like gaming or writing. I’m geared toward performance in some of my pleasures, which means I like playing to an audience.

    That said, I agree with this:

    Re: corsets and high heels. I’m also troubled by not being able to think of a single occasion in which I’ve heard of a MAN being asked to dress up in something that’s not conducive to his health so a woman can find him more arousing.

    Even the sexiest clothing men get asked to wear–outside of some fetish stuff–is probably more comfortable than the stuff women get asked to wear on a regular, not-dressing-up way. Which is manifestly unfair, and one of the reasons the Ugly Guy Hot Wife trope annoys the hell out of me.

  15. says

    I actually *do* like being the object of specific manifestations of the male gaze; bluntly, I like knowing that people I find physically attractive really want to fuck me.

    Okay, I get that. In that sense, it’s analogous to someone enjoying getting a laugh, or moving people profoundly, or even stirring up drama/conflict (which I don’t think *has* to be unhealthy, though it probably usually is).

    Now I’m wondering if men ever feel precisely that same way about women lusting after them. Would it even occur to most men to enjoy being wanted by someone beneath them in the social hierarchy? I’m not sure they’re conditioned to compute these things the way we are. I’m thinking men are conditioned to get a high from getting consent (to sex, a business deal, whatever) and women are conditioned to get high from validation.

    And yet, I’m thinking of how men excited men can get when an admired boss thoroughly approves of them – maybe it’s a matter of whether the validation’s flowing down the social hierarchy, or trickling up?

  16. says

    Jennifer: Precisely.

    I have a couple male friends who show the same behaviors, actually, and…interestingly enough, they’re all guys who are to some extent comfortable crossdressing for a role, playing women in games, and so forth. And the male celebrities I could think of who come close to the “wearing uncomfortable clothes to be arousing” thing are mostly seventies glam-rock icons like Bowie.

    Hm.

    I wonder if guys who are turned on by female lust tend to be the ones who cross some societal expectations regarding gender in other ways, and the more “traditionally manly” ones are more turned on by consent/achievement where women are concerned? Because they’ve bought more fully into the social hierarchy thing?

    Good questions. And ones I should think about with higher blood sugar, so I’m off to grab dinner. ;)

  17. says

    I wonder if guys who are turned on by female lust tend to be the ones who cross some societal expectations regarding gender in other ways, and the more “traditionally manly” ones are more turned on by consent/achievement where women are concerned?

    That makes a lot of sense, especially in context of your mention of Bowie. The exceptions may prove the rule in this case, because what’s the first thing the “manly man” set rushes to do when you show them a man who’s comfortable cross-dressing or being subjected to the female (panting) gaze? Declare him gay. Because if he’s gay, then he’s not a Real Man, so he doesn’t count, and doesn’t indicate that Real Men ARE capable of these behaviors if they decide to grant themselves that permission.

    But they are. There are plenty married-with-children-heterosexual actors who enjoy, or at least don’t mind, being undressed and oiled up for the female viewers.

  18. says

    Yeah, actually. And I’ve seen a lot of Real Men say things like “all those Hollywood guys are really gay” or “all those anime guys look like girls” (where anime, for all of its Really Unfortunate bits, does tend to be more comfortable with the female gaze) or, in geek communities, “those Goth guys are all homos”.

    The more I think about it, the more I get the feeling that traditonally masculine culture, for all of its heterosexuality, has a real problem with trying too hard to look good. Because you’re not supposed to care how you look to women–they’re just girls, you shouldn’t care about their opinion–and if the people whose opinion matters are men, men trying to look good are read as gay.

    Which annoys me on all sorts of levels, but not least as a straight-and-occasionally-looking chick. One more way the patriarchy messes up my sex life, I guess.

  19. says

    Years of drama and voice training have left me with very good breathing skills. It never even occurred to me to suck in my belly to look good, because that wasn’t taught to me as good posture — we were taught that the body has to be relaxed in order to breathe properly and take on the physical characteristics of a role. I wonder if belly breathing might even be a better way to tone your stomach than sucking it in all the time, because if you are breathing properly and deeply you are engaging your abdominal muscles on every exhalation, but not keeping them in a constantly tense state.

  20. says

    The more I think about it, the more I get the feeling that traditonally masculine culture, for all of its heterosexuality, has a real problem with trying too hard to look good. Because you’re not supposed to care how you look to women–they’re just girls, you shouldn’t care about their opinion–and if the people whose opinion matters are men, men trying to look good are read as gay.

    Oh, absolutely. Men get labeled gay for:

    –Looking good for women.
    –Doing nice things for female partners.
    –Listening to female partners talk about their day, their worries, etc.

    Even if it got them loads of sex partners, it was still Gay. It was so unfathomable, until I understood that boys were being taught (subtly) that impressing other guys was fundamentally more important than obtaining sex from women, and a big chunk of the “Yay sex!” talk was actually just bullshit. I mean, seriously, if their hormones were half the force of nature guys claim, they’d all be aiming for the GQ model look and honing their listening skills, right? Because that actually impresses a lot of women.

    But no. No, men gravitate toward these pickup classes that swear to them women like dominant, rapacious behavior, when it’s actually other MEN who get off on that. They form these little mutual admiration societies that are really about guys impressing other guys with alleged sex tricks and sex exploits, in which women aren’t even necessary.

    This is why I simply don’t believe men when they claim OMG!Sex is such an overpowering urge. If it really was, they’d be courting us instead of courting each other and assuming we’ll land under them at some point in this homoerotic mutual admiration fest. As someone in another thread said re: catcalling, it’s really a way for het men to engage sexually with one another. The woman is required for genital contact, but all the bonding, intimacy and other good stuff happens between the men.

    I think that’s extremely common (and women are capable of similar behavior, too).

    Saffronlie, I think that’s what we all should have learned, and I don’t doubt it may be better for your stomach muscles than sucking them in. Sucking them in never seemed to have a lasting effect on muscle tone for me. I’m surprised I wasn’t more self-conscious as I started breathing through my belly right out in public and everything. I think the actual comfort of it is boosting my confidence about how I look, strangely enough. It’s all perception after all.

  21. SunlessNick says

    If it really was, they’d be courting us instead of courting each other and assuming we’ll land under them at some point in this homoerotic mutual admiration fest.

    I realise you’re making a serious point, but that’s the funniest thing – in the sense of the turn of phrase – I’ve read in weeks. But I agree with your point, and would also throw in that I don’t often see men experience much difficulty in throwing off their sex-urges when they have to.

  22. The Other Patrick says

    Well, I know I’ve been asked to wear rubber, and I know guys who like wearing corsets, too, and I like dressing up on occasion, too, and knowing I look at least as sexy as I can. And most women I know who sometimes wear “corsets” mostly wear corset-like fashion, i.e. the tightness equivalent of a tight t-shirt.

    Of course, I don’t mind being called or suspected to be gay – why would I, it’s like someone calling me left-handed even though I’m not. And I frequent fetishy circles, and maybe my experience of women’s or men’s clothing is skewed. So I don’t know where I fit in your equation. I think my biggest male trait is that I’m not a good dancer and so don’t really like to dance (or maybe it’s the other way round).

  23. Moniquill says

    Concerning corsets: A well-made and well-fitting corset is actually incredibly comfortable and very supportive. A well-fitting corset also doesn’t constrict breathing – any corset that compresses the ribs is a poorly-fitted corset. Corsets are my go-to foundation garment if I know I’m going to be on my feet all day because that allows me to -be- on my feet all day without eventual lower back pain.

    Can’t say I have any love for high heels though – and thus I don’t own any.

  24. Moniquill says

    It wasn’t the whalebone (aside from its cruelty and environmental implications, it’s a perfectly fine substance in and of itself – light, strong, and flexible) as the tight lacing of corsets which themselves were shaped in a body-unfriendly way. Corsets with spoon busks and late Victorian ‘health corsets’ actually support an s-curve – including outward curvature of the belly! (they’re great for singing in).

    Sorry to go completely tangential here. I just tire of corsets as garments getting such a bad rep when it’s poisonous cultural practices (tight lacing to the point of organ failure, discouraging physical activity in girls, etc.) that surrounded them that caused most of the associated problems.

  25. says

    I just tire of corsets as garments getting such a bad rep when it’s poisonous cultural practices

    Understood. So it’s the “improper wearing of whalebone corsets” that caused the problem. I’ll make that distinction in future.

  26. says

    I’m not sure that “Improper wearing” is quite right either. Perhaps social pressures to conform to a certain shape that led to overly tight corsets being worn? Improper wearing makes it sound like the women wearing them got it wrong.

  27. Pipenta says

    Taking a CPR class years ago, we were taught that one out of four people are belly breathers. Weren’t told anything about fewer women being chest breathers, percentage wise. Would be quite interested in seeing some good solid stats on the matter.

    Never heard that belly breathing reduced anxiety. Have heard that singers are trained to belly breathe. Am a belly breather myself. I tend towards a rounded belly, even when I’m in killer shape, even if the muscles of my stomach are strong. Had a gal pal who was a black belt tell me that serious martial artists want those thick rounded ab muscles for protection and train to get them.

    I tried, when I was younger, to learn to be a chest breather. No can do. As soon as I stop thinking about it, I belly breathe.

    I had four years of bad PTSD, and belly breathed through all of it. BUT, for the first time in my life I kept my belly pulled in. Not out of vanity, I think, but out of fear. Didn’t want to be so exposed. Didn’t want the velociraptors/abusers to rip any more of my tender and necessary guts out.

    As soon as I started to feel safe, I stopped holding in my belly. Just as well, holding it in gave me gastric reflux disorder.

    Your body does weird things when you are anxious. At the peak of my terror, which lasted about a year and a half, I had a devil of a time peeing. I was too scared to piss. Thankfully I wasn’t too scared to breathe.

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