Widening the Lens: The Diaphragm

Flip through any vocal pedagogy text and you’ll see the diaphragm listed as one of the primary muscles of inspiration. It is the second largest muscle in the body. In those texts we learn about its function of assisting in respiration and that’s the end of the discussion.

In addition to playing a role in bringing air into the lungs, it also participates in moving food to the stomach (the esophagus passes through the diaphragm), it massages the vagus nerve which wraps around the esophagus, and it helps create stability in the abdomen.

Evolutionarily, the role of the diaphragm is as a stabilizer, not as a muscle of inspiration.

This is where things start to get interesting.

When you engage in a high load activity like running or planking, the diaphragm becomes a stabilizer and you therefore can’t breathe deeply because the big D has another job to do.

Because we need more air in cardiovascular exercise we will begin to use the accessory muscles of inhalation to help create the needed space in the body. In these instances, this is the body intelligently adapting to what is being asked of it. When you are done with the high load activity the accessory muscles will stop helping and the diaphragm is no longer needed as a stabilizer so it goes back to undulating like a jellyfish, playing a larger role in respiration.

When it comes to our emotional state, the diaphragm has a hugely important role.

We are constantly subconsciouly scanning our environment to determine safety. This is called neuroception. What muscle is highly responsive to a threat perceived through our neuroception? The diaphragm.

Whether we experience a stress response of fight, flight or freeze, the diaphragm will armor up (along with the psoas and pelvic floor) in response, reverting to its role as a stabilizer. In other words it will no longer undulate like a jellyfish.

A few heads may have just exploded, so take a second to re-read those last two paragraphs.

Can you think about a time you’ve been startled? Like, REALLY startled. You might be able to conjure up the sensation of the adrenaline that flows through the body, but can you somatically sense the grip of your inner core too?

When we are in a state where most of our life is without heavy stress and a history of trauma we might experience a stressful event, have some armoring up of our inner core and then as we move back out of the stress state the diaphragm, psoas and pelvic floor revert to their normal state.

Think now about people who have endured sustained trauma, a major traumatic event, or multiple traumatic events throughout their lifetime. Or people who live with regular anxiety or panic. Their diaphragm may be in a state of armoring on the regular and not know how to be any other way.

For these individuals, taking a deep breath won’t work. (in fact it might make them want to punch you in the face if you tell them to just take a deep breath and calm down). We cannot use the breath to move into a place of calm when our nervous system is disregulated in this way.

So what do we do? We can use movement, cultivating the skill of noticing without judgement and connecting to the environment around us to teach our nervous system a new sense of safety which will help the diaphragm move out of stabilizing and back into it’s role as a muscle of respiration.

If you read this and identify yourself in these words, reach out and let’s talk. Your body can find a state of safety and movement can play a major part in getting you there.

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