Diaphragmatic Breathing and Stress

Diaphragmatic Breathing and Stress


Aparna Rajagopal, co-author of the Breathing and the Diaphragm: Orthopedic Therapists remote course, shares "I have used breathing and evaluation of the diaphragm as a part of pelvic care for several years now...Through my interactions, I have come to realize that although many of the therapists are aware that the diaphragm and breathing are important, they are unsure of how to assess for dysfunctions and address those dysfunctions."

Pelvic floor patients who may benefit from diaphragmatic breathing exercises include those who present with pelvic pain, incontinence, prolapse, and cervical/thoracic/scapular/lumbar pain. The Breathing and the Diaphragm: Orthopedic Therapists remote course will expand the participant's knowledge of the diaphragm and breathing mechanics. This course offers a different perspective on back pain and alignment, along with the ability to assess and connect breathing and the diaphragm to core stability, continence issues, and the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is in charge of those bodily processes that do not require conscious thought. These include digestion, temperature, blood pressure, and breathing. The autonomic nervous system can be hacked or manipulated with deep breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing involves fully engaging the abdominal muscles and diaphragm when breathing by actively pulling the diaphragm down with each inward breath, allowing the lungs to fill more efficiently. The benefits of diaphragmatic breathing can include lowered heart rate and blood pressure regulation. Patients may also see a decrease in cortisol (a stress hormone), allowing them to relax better (1).

The effects of stress can show as emotional, cognitive, behavioral, or physical symptoms in different people. Pelvic pain can be connected to stress through the pelvic floor stress reflex response. This response is a reaction where the pelvic floor muscles actively contract from a stress trigger, either mental or physical. In such cases, increased muscle contractions can lead to tightness and weakness in the affected muscles. Visualize an agitated, tightened muscle to understand how stress can lead to hypertonic muscles, diarrhea, bladder, and sexual issues

Now let's back up to tie in the stress hormone cortisol. Normal cortisol levels rise and fall in a rhythmic pattern throughout the day, allowing for circadian rhythms. Cortisol also helps immune functions and cell repair. When the body is under stress, cortisol is produced in abnormal levels, leading to compromised immune function, pain, exhaustion, and many other issues. Pelvic conditions connected to abnormal cortisol levels include endometriosis(2), interstitial cystitis (3), vulvovaginal candidiasis, and vulvodynia. If a patient has a high cortisol-related diagnosis, intervention can include diaphragmatic breathing for stress management.

The course Breathing and the Diaphragm: Orthopedic Therapists is curated and taught by Aparna Rajagopal and Leeann Taptich. To learn how to incorporate breathing and the diaphragm into your practice, join the next scheduled remote course on October 23-24, 2021.



  1. Hopper S, Murray S, Ferrara L, Singleton J. Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review. JBI Database System Rev Implement Rep. 2019 Sep;17(9):1855-1876. doi:10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003848.
  2. Friggi Sebe Petrelluzzi K, Garcia M, Petta C et al. Physical therapy and psychological intervention normalize cortisol levels and improve vitality in women with endometriosis. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2012;33(4):191-198. doi:10.3109/0167482x.2012.729625.
  3. Schrepf A, O’Donnell M, Luo Y, Bradley C, Kreder K, Lutgendorf S. Inflammation and Symptom Change in Interstitial Cystitis or Bladder Pain Syndrome: A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Study of Chronic Pelvic Pain Research Network Study. Urology. 2016;90:56-61. doi:10.1016/j.urology.2015.12.040.
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