When I start to talk about the importance of breathing I can sometimes detect a quiet rolling of eyes and almost hear “well if we didn’t breathe we would be dead.” Quite correct. There are very few absolutes in life but this is one of them. Breathing is a natural involuntary action. We inhale and exhale constantly. Adults, when resting, usually breathe about 12-20 times per minute. Over the course of a day, that adds up to an average of 17,000-30,000 breaths per day.
The muscle that controls breathing is the diaphragm. It looks like a tight dome, a sheet of muscle that separates the heart and lungs from the abdominal cavity. As we inhale, the diaphragm flattens to allow our lungs to expand. As we breathe out, the diaphragm curves up into a dome.
Breathing is an automatic function of the body that is controlled by the respiratory centre of the brain. When we feel stressed, our breathing rate and pattern changes as part of the ‘fight-or-flight response’.
Things to remember
Shallow, upper chest breathing is part of the typical stress response.
The stress response can be reduced by consciously breathing using the diaphragm.
Abdominal breathing helps to control the nervous system and encourages the body to relax, bringing about a range of health benefits.
Think about reasons why you might take a sharp intake of breathe or hold your breath. You might be diving underwater for a moment, you may be playing a musical instrument or you may be anticipating something or wanting something to happen: (this is the origin of the phrase, “Don’t hold your breath!” when expected things may not come true.) Try holding your breath while reading this. As you continue to hold it what can you feel is happening in your body as you sit there?
As you hold your breath, the level of oxygen in your blood begins to sink. At the same time, the level of carbon dioxide—the waste left over from your body’s energy generating operations—starts to rise. Not enough oxygen will quickly affect the brains function. Ultimately, withdrawing oxygen leads to death. Chronic breath holding is not healthy because the muscular effort, coupled with the effects of stress on the nervous, hormonal, and immune systems, can impair both physical and psychological function.
Fortunately, we also have the power to deliberately change our own breathing through voluntary actions. Scientific studies have shown that controlling your breath can help to manage stress and stress-related conditions.
When a person is relaxed, they breathe through their nose in a slow, even and gentle way. Deliberately copying a relaxed breathing pattern seems to calm the nervous system that controls the body’s involuntary functions.
Controlled breathing can cause physiological changes that include:
- lowered blood pressure and heart rate
- reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood
- reduced lactic acid build-up in muscle tissue
- balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
- improved immune system functioning
- increased physical energy
- increased feelings of calm and wellbeing
How can you help yourself overcome breath holding habits? One way is to take classes that have a component of breath awareness and control training, like yoga, tai chi, or meditation. These have the effect of activating the parasympathetic nervous system, replacing effortful with relaxed breathing, reducing pain, anxiety and depression, and enhancing re-engagement in everyday and occupational activities.
You may want to try several different relaxation techniques to see which one works best for you. And if your favourite approach fails to engage you, or you want some variety, you’ll have alternatives.
A practice that we work with in our workshops is the Three Minute Breathing Space (practice this when you are not stressed so that you can use it when you are stressed).