The breath is a remarkably powerful mind-body connection which we can use effectively to manage our physical and mental health.
Although we all breathe everyday it largely remains an unconscious process. This means our breathing often changes in important ways without people being aware of it.
Different styles of breathing are linked with different mental and emotional states. If we can recognise these styles of breathing we can also then consciously change them to produce changes such as feeling calmer, stronger, more centred or energised.
Below you will find three common blocks (barriers and misconceptions) that can have detrimental effects on our breathing and therefore our overall health.
Ignoring the power of the breath
The Western perspective tends to think of cognitions, emotions, perceptions, actions and physiological states as separate. An alternate perspective is to view thinking, feeling, acting and perceiving as active and interactive processes. If we think of these processes as interlinked as we interact with the world, it is easier to see how physical responses are part of that as well, and breathing is also part of these active processes of interaction. Patterns of breathing change with different emotions and different mind-body states, and since breathing is the only major system in our bodies which can be entirely unconscious, or brought under conscious control, styles of breathing can be used to influence mood, stress and attention.
Breathing high in the chest
Generally people who are anxious tend to breathe high into the top of the chest and to hold the breath in. The breath leaks out a little rather than being strongly exhaled, and then there is another breath high in the chest. The inbreath often has a gasping quality to it.
In panic attacks people typically breathe in and out into the upper chest very fast. It is quick and shallow. Generally when people breathe this way they tend to ‘spin out’ as the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange gets distorted.
Restricting the breath
For many people when they feel very stressed or threatened, they breathe in a very restricted ‘frozen’ way. To look at these people there is hardly any movement of their chest or belly at all. It can feel almost as if there is some animal response of ‘playing possum’, as if a predator was nearby and there is an attempt by the body to stop all movement, even the movement of the breath.
People who are depressed also often restrict their breathing. When feeling really down it can be easy to slump, so restricting the movement of the lungs and then not breathing in very much, which in turn can flatten energy even more.
Below are three things you can do to boost success.
Breathe from the diaphragm
The anatomy of breathing can be quite complex, as the breath can be influenced by almost all the muscles of the chest, but can be thought of in three main types – diaphragmatic, chest or clavicular (named after the collarbones – so high in the upper chest). The main muscle of breathing should be the diaphragm, and the other areas can support and extend the breath. The diaphragm is like an umbrella or an upturned bowl that attaches to the lowest ribs – at rest it curves up and when active pulls down and expands out, drawing the air into the lungs. The chest is controlled by the rib muscles (intercostals), and clavicular breathing by muscles of the upper chest and neck. A full breath can use all of these but when people mostly use the upper muscles it leads to tiredness and often to headaches, neck and shoulder pain.
Breathing with the diaphragm also has a calming effect.
Lengthen the exhale
When we breathe in it has a slightly stimulating effect on the body and when we breathe out it is calming. The heart rate increases little on the inhale and slows a little on the exhale, but this only happens if the exhale is long enough. This happened through the influence of the vagal nerve. If you breathe too fast or breathe out too quickly, the calming effect does not have a chance to kick in.
Slow the breathing
Slow breathing has a calming and balancing effect on both body and emotional state. Recent research suggests that breathing in and out for about 5 or 6 seconds each brings the system into balance, especially balancing the slight increase and decrease of the heart rate that happens with the in and out breath.