It may sound strange to have a blog about learning how to breathe. It’s something we do without even thinking most of the time. However, because we rarely pay attention to our breathing we don’t notice the bad habits we may have inherited from our parents/care givers and are even less aware of the impact our breathing has on our body, mind and mood. The problem arises when we engage in breathing habits that alter oxygen and energy levels such as shallow breathing, over breathing and holding your breath. The consequences of which include anxiety, stress, fatigue, insomnia, tension and poor exercise tolerance.
Bad Breathing Habits
- Shallow Breathing– We breathe minimal air into the top of our lungs, usually at a faster rate, not drawing oxygen into the base of the lung.
- Over Breathing– We take in more air than we need, which draws in too much oxygen and depletes the CO2 levels. Signs of this may be sighing, yawning and snoring.
- Holding Your Breath– Usually occurring when we are under stress which can cause the breathing muscles to tense up. The eyes must have oxygen, holding your breath can cause eyesight issues.
This increased and shallow breathing immediately communicates to the brain that we are unsafe and triggers a stress response. You may notice its harder to focus and concentrate, form ideas and communicate. Physically you may feel hot, tense, agitated, faster heart rate and notice sensations in your stomach. You may find it harder to relax and get to or stay asleep. This in turn increases our anxiety and fuels further poor breathing patterns, developing a cycle. All of this from irregular breathing?!
A full breath relaxes the body and brain, slowing racing thoughts and indicating to the brain that we are relaxed, coping and in control. So learning to breathe in the correct way, the way you were designed to breathe, can have a positive impact on your body, mind and mood. It is something you can practice right away and can help you to feel more able to cope with difficulties.
There are two ways of breathing. One way is to breathe from the chest; the other is to breathe from the diaphragm. With chest breathing, the chest and ribs expand with each inhalation, while the abdomen remains relatively motionless. All three bad breathing habits fall in to the category of chest breathing. With diaphragmatic breathing, the stomach expands as the diaphragm moves downward to allow air to fill the lungs. Try to keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose. Research has shown that people who are experiencing anxiety tend to breathe more with their chest than their diaphragm.
For the most part concentrate on breathing out the stale air. You look after the emptying and the lungs will look after the re-filling. Now you know this, try to breathe only with your diaphragm. Allow yourself to have a complete breath and make use of all of your lung. Prolonging and deepening the out-breath calms and sedates. A technique I often use with clients is Breathe in for 4, Hold for 2, Breathe out for 6. This can help to give some idea of the pattern and tempo we’re working toward.
An interesting fact is that the advice often given to anxious or agitated people is to `breathe deeply’. However, this can be misleading since most people interpret this by taking deep in-breaths, which is likely to create an even more aroused state. When feeling anxious you need to prolong and slow your exhale. Maybe imagine slowing things down and grounding yourself in the moment as you exhale. Taking charge of your life again with each slow breath.
For some people when they first begin using breathing exercises they can experience dizziness. This usually indicates that your body is not used to the richer supply of oxygen and further evidence this is a good route for you. It is nothing to worry about and with practice the oxygen-carbon dioxide ratio will even out and you will begin to notice the benefits.
Because breathing is something we do without thinking, it is very easy to slip back into the old patterns – even now we know the consequences. Human’s don’t like change! In order to `wire-in’ the new habits try to resolve to be mindful of your breathing each day with particular attention when you notice yourself feeling more anxious or stressed. With practice this will become your more automatic way of breathing, returning to the way in which you are designed to breathe, and you’ll be sure to notice the difference in your mood, mind and body.
When working with individuals presenting with anxiety I explore breathing techniques within the first session. It can provide the client with some understanding of their symptoms and delivers a practical and easy technique they can apply the same day. Feeling better able to respond to anxiety and feel more in control is invariably the goal anyone struggling with anxiety sets. Acknowledging your current breathing habit and its’ effects can be helpful and may enable you to better understand some of your difficulties. Developing a calmer and fuller breathing habit can be the start of feeling more relaxed and in control, so give it a go!