Breathing. Something we do every minute of every day. We hardly think about it; it is completely automatic and unconscious. It seems like such a basic and involuntary activity that we all engage in the same way. However, there are different ways to breathe, and the way we routinely breathe can have a significant impact on our physical and emotional health.
Specifically, deep abdominal breathing has been found to positively affect the heart, brain, digestion and immune response. It will also decrease feelings of anxiety and worry. Taking a quick check of your breathing throughout the day can shine a light on your overall well-being. Moreover, making changes in the way you breathe can potentially improve your daily life.
While our breathing is automatic, we develop patterns of breathing that become habitual. Sometimes the type of breathing we engage in depends on the situation we are in. For example, when we are physically active (running, hiking, playing a sport) or are frightened, we tend to take short, shallow, quick breaths. In contrast, when we are very relaxed, we tend to take longer, deeper breaths that originate from our diaphragm.
The type of breathing we engage in can also depend on our general daily arousal state. If we are in a state of constant worry or anxiety, we will engage in chest breathing that consists of short, shallow and quick breaths. People who have a panic attack or demonstrate very short, shallow, quick breathing can hyperventilate. When hyperventilation occurs, the balance of breathing oxygen in and carbon dioxide out is upset, and we quickly exhale more than we inhale, causing a rapid reduction in carbon dioxide in the body.
The type of breathing we exhibit can influence if we activate the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers a fight or flight response, or the parasympathetic system, which relaxes us. When we engage in short, shallow, quick breaths that come from our chest, we stimulate the sympathetic nervous system that releases stress hormones and readies our body for a stressor. This type of breathing yields less oxygen transfer to the blood and poor delivery of nutrients to the tissue. It prepares us to engage in rapid bursts of physical activity, but is not meant to be maintained for prolonged periods of time.
In contrast, deep, slow breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, yields more oxygen, better nutrients to tissues and can decrease stress hormones in our body. Specifically, deep breathing, which activates the diaphragm forcing air into the lungs, triggers the parasympathetic system. This system, once activated, can reduce our heart rate, decrease perspiration, improve digestion and increase overall feelings of well-being.
Research has found that this type of breathing can have immediate impact on altering the pH level of blood, changing our blood pressure and making us feel more relaxed. In addition, there is some emerging evidence that consistent deep breathing can increase our immune system response, improve asthma and decrease problems associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The way we breathe may be habitual, but we can train ourselves to breathe in a different way. Those of us who engage in shallow chest breathing can learn to breath more deeply from the diaphragm.
The first step in changing our breathing pattern is developing an awareness of how we routinely breathe. Next, we can take time to practice the deep breathing activity. Eventually this type of breathing will become routine and can be used in real world situations without thinking about it. Taking some time now to practice deep breathing can pay dividends in the long run.
Here are the steps for practicing deep breathing:
» Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen. When you take a deep breath in, the hand on your abdomen should rise higher than the hand on your chest. This shows that you are using your diaphragm to pull air into the base of your lungs.
» After exhaling through your mouth, take a deep, slow breath in using your nose and hold it in while you try to count to seven. Try imagining that you are trying to suck in all the air in the room that you are in.
» Slowly exhale through your mouth while counting to eight. Let all the air be slowly released at a consistent rate. Gently contract your abdominal muscles to ensure that any remaining air is completely expelled from the lungs. It is essential that all air be exhaled as this allows us to breath deeply when we inhale next.
» Repeat the cycle four more times for a total of five deep breaths.
» Practice the cycle at least two times a day to start in a quiet place free of distractions. When you begin this activity, it may be best to try lying down to better feel the rise in your abdomen as you do it.
» Once the activity becomes more familiar, consider increasing the times you engage in this activity throughout the day and try it in different locations with distractions present.
» As time progresses, try checking in periodically throughout the day on your breathing. Assess if you are breathing deeply. This will be especially important if you will be entering a stressful situation or if you are feeling stressed.
— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.