First off, you may be thinking 'how could breathing ever be done wrong?'
Well, it's not so much wrong as it is inefficient.
Secondly, breathing right is not a magical cure for pain and anxiety and the like, but let me tell you: if you're not breathing correctly you're not on your way to recovery.
Now, I'm not going to get into the anatomy of breathing, you can pick up an anatomy text book like the Marieb Human Anatomy and Physiology for that. What I will discuss is how and why we get into poor breathing habits and what you can do about it.
I'm going to break this down into three very simple components. Feel free to stop reading after these three points unless you want to know more about bad breathing and hyperventilation and how that could be having effects on your body and mind.
1. Breathe through the nose
A nose is perfect for breathing! It warms the air, filters little nasties that then get gobbled up and expelled through the lymphatic system and it doesn't require any effort to allow the air in. Breathing through the mouth does the opposite of those things.
2. Belly breathing
When you breathe in, allow your stomach to expand out. You when breathe out allow your stomach to sink back in. Simple. At a state of rest you should not be using upper neck and chest muscles to force in breath.
Your ribs will expand and contract, that's normal. But you should not be forcing your body upwards.
Stomach out = breath in.
Stomach in = breath out.
3. Short in breaths, long out breaths.
I actually don't need to elaborate on this one...but, I will. When the in breath is fast and the out breath is short, you're hyperventilating. This is bad, if you're at a state of rest.
When you're not exercising your breath should be (on average, give or take) 2-3seconds inhale, 4-5seconds exhale.
Do these 3 things and notice the changes.
Read on to see why...
How or why we get into poor breathing habits is anyones guess. It could be anxiety, soft tissue trauma, emotional trauma, learned traits and habits from others, the list could go on.
What's important is knowing you're doing it. Wrong, that is.
Ineffective breathing is mostly when we shallow breathe and don't use our diaphragm (in our abdomen) to breathe. Instead we can get into a habit of breathing through our mouths and using our upper chest and neck muscles to breathe.
This is called upper chest breathing, or hyperventilation.
It's common in those who suffer from panic attacks, anxiety or are highly strung. I think unless you've paid attention to your breathing before, you may be an upper chest breather and not know about it. *Gasp!*
A person doesn't need to be sitting there wheezing as if they've had a bucket load of spiders and centipedes poured on them to be classed as hyperventilating.
Just breathing through the mouth and upper chest, even if seemingly calm, can still result in hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is the act of breathing out excessively, i.e., releasing too much CO2.
Recall ever blowing up balloons for a party and just feeling whoozy afterwards. That's hyperventilating. Mouth breathing, using only your upper chest to breathe has the same effect.
Upper chest breathing is labour intensive. Why make things harder for yourself?
When we breathe off more CO2 than we should be it changes our bloods pH level, making it more alkaline. This has a number of effects.
> Dizziness, light headedness and poor balance
> Tunnel vision
> Brain fog and poor concentration
> Excessive sighing or yawning (you're trying to rebalance your C02 levels)
> Muscle tension and stiffness of tissues increases
> Shallow breathing means less oxygen for energy.
> It can create chest pains that mimic heart attacks.
> When upper chest breathing you're not aiding in blood and lymphatic flow with your diaphragm.
> High blood pressure.
> Creates a stress response.
> You're not warming the air (warm air= good for lungs) or filtering out pathogens.
> You're creating unnecessary tension and use of the jaw and neck muscles.
I'm sure there is something I'm missing out, but you get the point.
Again, I'm not getting into the science of it here (it'd cause us all great anxiety). But just know this, CO2 actually helps with the unloading of oxygen from Red Blood Cells into our body. So without CO2 we don't get enough O2 into our tissues. If you like science, read up on the Bohr effect.
Because of the reduced oxygen to the cells, tissues and the brain, this can create fatigue and pain.
Effectively what I'm trying to say is:
Shallow upper chest breathing/mouth breathing = not good.
No, no and no! None of those things are real and helpful. Except maybe snake oil.
Just breathe normally, and naturally. Follow these exercises below and practice it every day!
To breathe properly your diaphragm must pull down on the inhale breath and push up (not forced, though) on the exhale breath (paradoxical breathers will do the opposite!).
Your stomach pushes out on the inhale and squashes in on the exhale. Belly out. Belly in.
Lie on your back, comfortably on the floor, or bed. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. This helps to give sense and awareness to your breath.
Imagine that your lungs are a glass and the air water; you want the “glass” to fill from bottom Up.
Gently, through your nose, take in a breath. Allow your stomach to rise up as the “glass” begins to fill.
As the hand on the stomach lifts then allow the chest to expand, noting the hand on the chest rising.
Make your exhale, or out breath, slow and controlled. Let the stomach fall first then the chest. Breathing out through the nose.
Stomach rise, chest rise; stomach fall, chest fall.
Through the nose (the nose helps warm the air and stops you from venting too much CO2, remember?).
As you do this concentrate on controlling the breath, and then let it fall into its own natural rhythm. The breath may be shallower but it will be more steady, more fluid. More natural and easy, not forced.
The breath should now be falling in and out of you.
Try doing it wrong!
Through your mouth inhale, only allowing the chest to rise. Breath out through the mouth.
Try making the in breath quicker than the out breath.
Do this a few times.
Notice how labour intensive this is and almost stressful it feels?
Go back to the other way; it’s much nicer.
A breathing technique for sleep or calm.
> 4 second in breath
> 6 second hold
> 8 second out breath
Now, 6 and 8 seconds is a long time. So it can be shorter, like 4 - 4 - 5. The exhale is important, it’s the calming breath, as in when you go “aaah” and heave a great sigh of relief.
A long exhale tells the body that we have time to breathe, that we're not being chased. We all should breath slow and controlled and not fast and hard as if we're fleeing or fighting.
Well, you know, unless you're fleeing or fighting. And even then maybe more controlled breathing would be of better help?
Count the seconds with your breath. If your mind begins to flood with thoughts, let them in but let them pass. You’re just there happily counting breaths, the thoughts can do as they please. And they will go as long as you breath and count.
Breathe and count. Through the nose. Fill up the glass. Let it out slow.
For a nice normal breathing rhythm (when not doing a specific breathing exercise) try breathing in, pausing for a second, then exhaling.
This can help stop getting "out of sync" with your breath. Especially if you're in an anxious state.
Why, what a great question! Yes it can!
Massage therapy can help you relax, easing anxiety and stress. Massage can also be targeted to reducing tension and dominance of the breathing accessory muscles. Trigger points in the diaphragm or intercostal muscles (the yummy meat in between the ribs) can be addressed, allowing the muscles to work properly again.
Through massage, breathing exercises and maybe just the right amount of meditation, you can be back to breathing right, feeling less stressed and being in less pain.
AdvanceNMT can help with breathing training and massage of the muscles that help you breath.
Chris is a fully trained massage therapist, registered with Massage New Zealand,
he has two diplomas in therapeutic and clinical massage therapy and a certificate in relaxation.
Chris works from the historical Orewa House on the Hibiscus Coast and with the team at Lifestyles NMT in New Lynn, Auckland.