We can shiver, sneeze, laugh, blink, and breathe without any conscious effort. Whether it’s falling asleep, pumping blood through our veins, or breathing air into our lungs, our bodies are often on auto-pilot. But the last one — breathing — can be turned into a powerful and positive force, if we pay attention.
We are chest-breathers
Many of us have lapsed into breathing without any depth – we are chest breathers. This means using the intercostal muscles to draw air into the chest rather than using our diaphragm to draw the air throughout the lungs. There are lots of reasons for this, including our posture when we sit that makes deep breathing difficult, and a cultural bias for a flat belly that has us “sucking it in.” For most of us, the consequences are not immediately life threatening, but the impact can still be significant. Chest breathing can:
- increase tension, anxiety, and stress levels
- cause neck pain and headaches because the upper body (throat and upper chest) is over-working
- make us more susceptible to lower back pain
According to Dr. Belisa Vranich, medical research says that breath affects your “sleep, back, digestion, and memory” as well as other body parts including your esophagus, pelvic floor, and adrenal glands, At a more extreme level, chest breathing can contribute to rapid breath, hyperventilation, cumulation of carbon dioxide, and high blood pressure.
Our bodies were designed for a deeper, diaphragmatic breathing – also known as belly breathing. The diaphragm is a muscle located between the chest and abdomen. It is the major muscle for breathing — contracting it, forces the inhalation of air, and relaxing it produces the exhalation.
Benefits of diaphragmatic breathing
So, what is there to gain from this? Diaphragmatic breathing can:
- reduce stress levels with lower cortisol (NCBI)
- enable full oxygen exchange (incoming oxygen exchanged for outgoing carbon dioxide)
- increase ability to sustain attention (NCBI)
- stabilize blood pressure
- slow our heart beat
- increase self-awareness
- act as “preventative treatment for numerous health issues – notably asthma and high blood pressure” (Jane Boston).
So why not try it?
Start with morning and evening deep breathing
If you’re brand new to deep breathing, this may take some practice. I suggest you start with a morning and evening routine — it’s something you can do even while you’re lying in bed. These instructions from Headspace are very helpful:
Lie on your back with one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Breathe in deeply while pushing out your stomach as far as you can. The hand on your stomach will move out and the hand on your chest will remain still. When you exhale, you will feel your stomach pulling back in. Both your chest and shoulders should stay relaxed and still.
Use a trigger that you choose
If you’ve had some practice with deep breathing, you can still do the morning and evening breathing, but there’s an opportunity to integrate it more regularly into your life. I’m assuming that you are able breathe deeply in a variety of positions including standing and sitting. If so, pick a trigger — this will be your personal signal to pause and take 3 deep breaths. The trigger is something you see, hear, feel or do — choose something that occurs repeatedly throughout your day. For example, breathe deeply every time you:
- turn on a tap,
- stop at a red light, or
- see a flower.
Those are just a few. If those don’t resonate, think of what you notice in your life – is it a train going by because you work close to the tracks, or a dog barking, or a phone ringing (assuming that’s not a constant experience)? It will be easier if you pick something that’s hard to ignore. You also want want to pick something frequent enough to engrain the habit, but not so frequent that pausing becomes too overwhelming, and you just give up and forget about this deep breathing.
Since this is an ideal stress reliever, in addition to the trigger you pick to engrain the habit of breathing deeply, you can also use deep breathing whenever you find yourself getting tense.
Given all the benefits of deeper breathing, including calming us when we have feelings or emotions that feel threatening, it seems like an obvious habit that you want to build. Good luck.
P.S. Fun fact is that a spasmodic movement of the the diaphragm is what causes the hiccups. More diaphragm anatomy information here, and more reading on the hydraulics of respiration from painscience.com