|Last week I discussed some strategies to reduce physical stress in the office workplace: sitting back into your chair, using elbow rests, pulling the VDU close so that the screen is within the natural focal distance for the lens of the eye. These tips are all about staying close to the task in hand. However despite this, it is important to remember that the body is made for movement. Even ideal postures, if held for prolonged periods become uncomfortable.|
You know those street performers who assume poses like statues? As they stay absolutely still for minutes at a time you can just feel yourself itching to move on their behalf. Maintaining a fixed posture is difficult because only certain muscles are activated to hold the pose, but they work for prolonged periods.
Working muscles produce lactic acid. In normal activity fresh blood is washed through muscle taking away the lactic acid. Holding strict postures ‘sets’ the muscle so that minimal blood gets through. Lactic acid builds up and becomes concentrated. This is interpreted in the brain as physical discomfort. The brain then wills movement to occur. For most of us, this prompts us to shuffle in our chair or move a limb, rotate the shoulders or some such physical response. The skill of the street performer is to resist the brain’s command to alter position.
Awareness of discomfort in these areas is the brain’s signal that these areas are overworking, have a lactic acid build up and need to move. Becoming consciously aware of this uncomfortable sensation is a significant step to beginning to address it.
Stress produces similar lactic acid build up in muscles of the back of the neck and shoulders. An almost universal physical response to stress is that these muscles taut and overactive. When stressed the shoulders are subconsciously pulled up towards the ears and often held there for hours on end. This not only fatigues the muscles but has two other dramatic effects also.
These hardworking muscles contribute over time to compression of the small spinal joints of the lower neck and also change the way we breathe by ‘fixing’ the ribcage and reducing air entry.
The small joints of the lower neck dry out under sustained compression: synovial fluid which normally bathes and nourishes the joint surfaces is squeezed to the joint margins. This reduces the joint’s ability to move freely. Over time the lower neck can become stiff and painful, as a consequence of stressful posture.
The first stress buster action to take is to let the shoulders drop during the day. This may have to be practiced repeatedly, as the old familiar posture of hunched shoulders will have become ‘hardwired’ through repetition, so the replacement posture will also need repetition to become ‘the norm’. To help get used to dropping the shoulders I often suggest imagining wearing long dangly earrings. Then choose to drop the shoulders so that the earring tips hang above rather than rest on the shoulders. This dropping action turns off the elevator muscles and gives them a chance to relax.
Add this to using the elbow rests and stress related shoulder discomfort will become a thing of the past.
The second action is even more powerful. The same shoulder muscles when overactive contribute to reduced breathing activity.
Why this occurs is that breathing activity is performed by three sets of connected muscles: the primary muscles of respiration being the diaphragm and muscles of the ribcage, while the accessory respiratory muscles are the superficial neck muscles, the same muscles that pull up the shoulders in times of stress. In times of need, such as in an asthmatic attack or acute pneumonia, the neck muscles are programmed to act as a backup to the primary respiratory muscles.
The diaphragm extends the depth of the lungs. Ribcage muscles expand the chest width ways. The superficial neck muscles pull the chest upwards. Working together these respiratory muscles are able to expand lung tissue in every direction to increase air entry.
However, in a sedentary lifestyle it is rare to use the whole expanse of the chest. Most of us just use shallow or upper chest breathing, especially in prolonged sitting. If upper chest breathing is predominantly used through, these neck muscles, already overactive from posture demands are further called in to use for breathing. These muscles help ‘fix’ the chest so that breathing only occurs in the upper chest.
Respiration is a vital activity for life. It is within the chest that old or dirty blood, carrying waste products is cleaned and re-oxygenated. Each inward breath delivers air rich in oxygen. Each exhale is full of carbon dioxide or ‘used’ air. Just using the upper chest for hours on end for this exchange process is inefficient.
Yawning is the body’s attempt to reopen the chest, use the ribcage muscles and diaphragm and release neck/shoulder muscles. Yawning occurs almost subconsciously. However choosing to take a couple of deep breaths every hour mimics the yawn response, fills the lungs fully, improves the quality of air in the lunges and improves gas exchange. This cleans blood effectively and is a great stress buster.
The phrase ‘take a deep breath’ is one often associated with launching ourselves out of our comfort zone. My anti-stress suggestion is to add ‘taking a deep breath’ to every day life: when shoulders start to ache, think of the dangly earring and drop the shoulders. Then sit up and consciously fill your lungs by breathing in deeply 2-3 times.
These two simple activities are small steps of many stress management tools. If the environment you work in is very stressful, taking conscious control of the environment by implementing these two small internal physical changes may set you on the road to overall positive change. Take a deep breath and go for it!