Why does the way you breath matter? If you are breathing then you are alive. My Grandfather always used to joke that the cause of death is always lack of breath. So what more is there to know? There are many different breathing techniques, many of them having their roots in yogic and spiritual practices, and they all have merit for the purposes intended.
However, there are just two ways of breathing that are crucial to the quality of our life. They have to do with our Autonomic Nervous System, which controls two opposing systems: the Relaxation Response, and the Flight/Fight (Stress) Response. Each system triggers an entirely different breathing pattern: Calm Breathing or Stress Breathing.
We are designed to be in the Relaxation Response most of the time, as our natural state, and only switch to the Flight/Fight Response when there is a threat to our lives. This stress response is a very primitive response which has not evolved to take account of modern life with its many non-physical stressors. Originally it would only be activated if a wild animal or human enemy attacked, or there was a similar threat to our physical safety. In modern times we can feel under threat for psychological or lifestyle reasons, such as threats to our reputation, fear of job loss, work overload, worrying what someone might think of us etc, etc..
In primitive times the physical threat would be quickly over, assuming you survived, and the Relaxation Response would be restored. The Flight/Fight Response would probably only be operating 5% of your life.
A common problem today is spending far too much time in the Flight/Fight Response, which involves Stress Breathing, observed as rapid breathing, shallow breathing, over breathing and hyperventilation, using the upper chest muscles to breathe. Stress Breathing is excellent if there actually is a physical threat as it ensures the amount and balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide is just right for running like the wind or fighting for your life. But if you need to stay where you are and have a rational conversation, it is of no help at all. Many people develop a habit of Stress Breathing all the time. If you don’t expend the energy as intended, you will feel most uncomfortable, panicky and it can be very detrimental to your health. This habit can however be retrained.
We can conclude that the Fight/Fight Response is being triggered inappropriately, because our evolution has not caught up with the stressors in modern life. Juggling many responsibilities, tiring commutes, lack of time, health challenges, raising a family, financial worries, negotiating with others and so on, do not require fighting or fleeing. They require a calm, relaxed state, good sleep and the ability to gather information and make rational decisions, and to relate to others harmoniously. Modern day stressors need us to stay in the Relaxation Response!
Even though the situation you are in has not changed, there is an easy way to fill up your lungs and relax anyway. If you take conscious control of your breathing and breathe as you would if you were relaxed, you can trick your body out of the Stress Response and back into the Relaxation Response. The tense muscles, lack of breath, endless worry and sense of doom will give way to a clarity of mind, relaxed body, ability to make your decisions easily, a solution focus and better health.
RELAXATION RESPONSE BREATHING PATTERN – CALM BREATHING
Noses and Diaphragms are for breathing
Breathing properly is nostril breathing. The aperture of your nostrils is perfectly designed for optimum air flow. The remarkable and best news of all is that, as the air passes over the linings of your nostrils, they produce Nitric Oxide, which is a vasodilator. It regulates the dilation of the inner surfaces of your nostrils, lungs and all the smooth muscles of your body. This nasal Nitric Oxide acts to sterilize the incoming air, reducing infection, and increases the oxygenation of the lungs.
The Calm Breathing pattern which is nature’s design uses the diaphragm to breathe, not the small muscles of the ribs and neck. The diaphragm is a large sheet of muscle beneath the lungs. It utilises oxygen slowly and tires slowly. It keeps going without tiring from birth to death. Impressive!
The small muscles used in Stress Breathing convert oxygen quickly and tire quickly- they are not intended for normal breathing. Upper chest breathing for long periods causes tight, tired muscles, fatigue and bones pulled out of alignment e.g. head pulled forward causing neck and upper back pain.
Ratio 1:2 Breathing
Have you noticed that when you release the breathe in a long sigh, you release tension? Research has shown that ratio 1:2 breathing (breathing out for twice as long as breathing in) tones down arousal in the nervous system. The out-breath regulates the relaxation response and as you lengthen this breath you increase the relaxing influence of the out-breath.
HOW TO BREATH PROPERLY AND ELIMINATE PANIC AND ANXIETY
There are 3 elements to the Calm Breathing pattern
1. NOSE BREATHING
BREATHE IN AND OUT, THROUGH THE NOSE especially on the IN breath. This is ideal, so don’t worry if your nose is blocked, steps 2 and 3 will still work.
2. DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING
BREATHE IN FULLY TO YOUR LOWER ABDOMEN – belly expands, upper chest and shoulders remain still.
BREATHE OUT SLOWLY – belly deflates. Navel sinks down towards the spine.
3. RATIO BREATHING 4/8
Breathe in as deeply as is comfortable – to the count of 4. Breathe out slowly to the count of 8.
The numbers don’t really matter, it’s the ratio of 1:2 that is important. When you are anxious you will probably only manage to breathe in for a count of 2 or 3, but as you continue, your breaths will get deeper.
Consciously control your breathing in this way for a few minutes, as often as you like throughout the day. Perhaps in the morning to start your day and before bed to improve your sleep, any time you feel anxious, or anytime you catch yourself taking rapid, shallow breaths or holding your breath. Then let your breathing rhythm continue on its own. Notice if you feel calmer and more able to choose a better thought. With practice this will become your new normal way of breathing, and you will feel noticeably calmer and in control of your thoughts, in a more positive direction.