Have you ever purchased an item of clothing that looks great but feels like absolute torture to wear (think tight jeans)? 

Have you seen the latest waist trainers but are wondering if they are really all they are cracked up to be? 

Let me try and explain what may be happening to you and your breathing, in these situations.

About two years ago a young executive lady came in to see me – lets call her “Sam”*.  She had booked an appointment to discuss her anxiety and breathing, and as she walked in, I could see she was quite flustered, a bit red in the face and rushing with her words.  She was dressed up in a very tight fitting dress and low heels and was pacing around the room describing some of her problems. Sam was a very likeable lady; she seemed to have a busy but caring personality. I asked her to sit down and tell me a bit more about her breathing and anxiety.

Sam: “Um… do you mind if I unzip my dress just a bit, because I can’t sit down with it zipped up?”

I was at first a little confused? Did she just say that she couldn’t sit down? If the dress was that tight how was she going about her day in comfort?  How was she breathing? 

Of course I said that that would be fine, and over the next few sessions we checked out Sam’s breathing and discussed her anxiety – these for Sam were closely related. Sam began to improve, so I ventured into a bit of fashion advice (those who know me know that I know nothing about fashion!).

Me: “ Sam, did you know that tight dresses work a bit like corsets? 

Sam: “No?”

Me: “They constrict your tummy, pushing your liver and stomach up into your diaphragm and forcing your bladder and uterus down. This makes you feel terrible. Did you realise that this was the reason that Victorian era women used to swoon and faint? They used to carry fans to keep themselves awake and to stop them from fainting!”

Sam “oh no – is that why I feel so terrible in tight clothes…”

This is no joke. In fact, from the 18th century through to the Victorian era women used to wear corsets to maintain a fashionable figure line with an incredibly small waist. The practice had many enthusiasts and many detractors. Women used to have a variety of different styles including whalebone and lace ups at the back. The end result was a whole lot of fainting (hyperventilation), a whole lot of misdiagnosis (e.g. hysteria), and then a whole lot of strange ideas on how to treat this problem.

Victorian era women used to wear corsets to maintain a fashionable figure line with an incredibly small waist

Hyperventilation can occur for a variety of reasons, but some common ones are poor clothing choices, anxiety, stress, and injury or lung disease. Hyperventilation leads to a physical alteration of poor diaphragm movement, and reduced expansion in the base of the lungs. This can be seen as an apical or upper chest breathing pattern and an increased respiratory rate to maintain minute volume. You then may puff off too much carbon dioxide or just feel overwhelmed and anxious and viola you faint or get close to it!

Essentially, you can try and feel this for yourself. Stand in front of a mirror or film yourself. Notice how you breathe. Hopefully you use your tummy or diaphragm at rest. Grab a belt and loop it around your waist above your belly button. Now breathe out as far as you can, suck in and tighten up that belt. Hold that position and now try to breathe… Feels rubbish right? Yep and that’s what tight clothing and a corset does.

Leave the fainting to those Victorian era girls!

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NB: * not clients real name

Some patients are prescribed corsets for serious medical conditions such as rectus diastasis or Polio. If that’s you, then please ignore this blog!