Breathing is fundamentally the most important part of human existence. Simply put if we don’t breathe for just a few minutes we drop dead. The importance of breathing cannot be overstated on a pure survival level.
However, what if we told you that you could use your breathing to control pain in your body? What if we suggested that by improving the way in which you breathe we can improve our immune function? What if we dare to suggest that by focusing on doing the right kind of breathing we can improve our mood and general well being?
Once solely in the realm of the hippies breathing as an exercise for health and well being is being brought into the mainstream as this recent article in the Guardian suggests. The momentum behind the body of research is getting hard to ignore. What’s great for us is that it backs up what we see with our clients day to day.
Dr Belisa Vranich in her book Breathe states that the single most important intervention you can make for you own health is to breathe better. So shall we delve a little deeper to see how you can improve your life with a few little huffs and puffs?
Are You Breathing Properly?
Chances are if you’re sat down reading this then probably not. Sitting inhibits our diaphragm. It’s simply much easier to breath with your diaphragm when lying down. For those that don’t know what diaphragmatic breathing is, all will be revealed.
Further impairment of breathing comes from stress and trauma. Overuse our fight or flight response and we continue to habitually breathe in a shallow manner. In a constant state of heightened sensitivity. Looking for things to run away from.
On a conscious level most of us are completely unaware of this affect on our breathing. Many of you reading this will probably be thinking “Oh no, that’s not me” when in fact it probably is. Have you never had any stress or trauma in your life? Honestly?
But why would stress and trauma affect breathing function. Consider someone who has just has some terrible news. For example the loss of a loved one. The sobbing, the expression of grief has very short impaired intakes of breath. Now obviously this is a very extreme example. But on a smaller scale day to day this happens to us all the time without us noticing. Furthermore this stress and trauma can be locked physically in the body for a long time after the initial stress or trauma has passed. Our memory of it remains. Emotionally and physically.
The idea that stress and trauma can be locked away in the body for years is not a new one. It is merely being more widely accepted. This concept is beautifully and eloquently put across in a fabulous book by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk – The Body Keeps The Score.
What Should Happen When I Breathe?
Breathing should be an effortless natural affair that provides the mechanism to get oxygen to all of our tissues to keep them, and us, alive. It is done automatically (by our autonomic nervous system) which is why we breathe when we’re unconscious. Of course we have the ability to affect it consciously. This is the only part of the autonomic nervous system that we have any conscious control over.
Breathing function can be affected in very different ways by our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Before any non-science types run for the hills with all this Latin simply put the sympathetic nervous system is sympathetic to our surroundings. It is dominant in our Fight or Flight response when we’re either ready to confront the threat, or run away from it. Parasympathetic nervous system dominance is the opposite. It becomes dominant when we are safe and away from danger. It prioritises digesting food, repairing and relaxing.
The issues arise when we are constantly bombarded by lots of stresses. We never have time to relax and repair and we as people stay on the edge all the time. Breathing should be a flexible thing whereby we can breathe heavily in a ‘stressed’ manner when required to run away from stuff but equally we should be able to breathe in a relaxed manner when we are safe. The modern world doesn’t make us feel safe very often. Many of us get stuck in the Fight or Flight style breathing.
Relaxed breathing relies mostly on the diaphragm muscle and so we call it diaphragmatic breathing. We will talk in detail how to do this later. Next in line are our ribs. This will start moving more when we’re stressed or exercising to give the lungs more room to get more oxygen in.
Finally when we’re really ‘going for it’ the muscles in the neck and shoulders work to give that extra bit of room in our upper lungs. So we can squeeze in that final extra bit of oxygen. This is a really great system. There wouldn’t be 7 billion of us walking around otherwise. However, walking around being stressed for long periods of our lives causes problems.
A great physical example is describing have stressed shoulders. It may be due to the fact that pulling your shoulder up by your ears is a physical representation of a stress state. Or it could be because the muscles of the neck and shoulder are having to extra work to get oxygen as diaphragm does not work efficiently when we’re stressed.
The Science Of How The Diaphragm Relaxes Us
Those of a non scientific / techie persuasion may wish to skip to the next heading!
Many people are comfortable with the idea that diaphragmatic breathing helps us to relax. If you’re not convinced yet hopefully when you try it shortly you will be. But how does breathing more with our diaphragm relax us?
The answer lies in the Vagus and Phrenic nerves. Bear with me on this one guys! Vagus means wanderer. It wanders form the heart, to the lunch and around the digestive tract directly from the brain. The Phrenic nerve passes from the 3 vertebrae in your neck (C3-5) past your heart and lungs to the diaphragm.
Between them they control the whole engine room of the body – the diaphragm, the heart and the lungs. Two pretty important nerves! These two nerves are parasympathetic dominant. They are more active in our relaxed state.
When we use the diaphragm to breathe this stimulates the parasympathetic part of these nerves. The Vagus nerve also impacts our hormone levels due to the amount of organs is ‘wanders’ past. Causing more release of our relaxation hormones (e.g. noradrenaline, serotonin) and a reduction in production of our stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline, cortisol) This change in the soup of hormones ambling through our system further perpetuates the feeling of relaxation.
If you’d like to look at the wanderings of the Vagus nerve to make sense of this there’s a great picture here.
What Are The Implications Of Not Breathing Well?
70% of the blood supply to our lungs is in the lower half of our lungs. If we do not use this part of our lungs by not breathing well with our diaphragm we simply don’t get as much oxygen in. Oxygen is what gives energy to the power houses of all our cells (mitochondria) and in turn give us energy. So in the short term we have less energy.
The long term effects are wide ranging. In this great TED Talk by Joe DiStefano he talks about the long term affects such as long term stress, back pain, restless leg syndrome, anxiety, acid reflux, migraines and even a link with increased likelihood of cardiac mortality.
Why Should I Breathe Better?
Because it will make you a better lover! No really. Well at least it might increase your sex drive – I can’t vouch for how good you’ll be. The reason being is that when we become more relaxed – parasympathetic nervous system dominant – we look to repair ourselves, digest our food and start thinking procreating to expand the population. If we’re in the middle of running away from stuff the last thing on your mind is getting jiggy with it!
Hopefully you can see what I’ve done there. I’m working on your motivation to actually do the breathing exercises we’re working towards. There’s a really nice article here from Psychology Today with more health based motivation as to why you should look to get your diaphragm and vagus nerve feeling happier about life.
For those of you working in big business there’s another great TED Talk by a gentleman by the name of Max Strom here. He does a lot of work going into big corporations extolling the virtues of breathing exercises and helping them to work more efficiently and make better decisions. Simply by working breathing exercises into the culture of the business.
If you need any more convincing in his TED Talk we linked to above Joe Di Stefano explains how breathing better moves organs around more. The kidneys for example move 2-3 cm during a big diaphragmatic breath. Better movement leads to better function and better detoxifying of the body.
He goes onto say that even if you don’t feel an easing in pain you should still feel less hampered by it. Can you see why we focus on breathing work at the clinic?
For those who aren’t in pain and a bit more athletic he claims it should even improve your flexibility. To the point he has replaced stretching with his professional athletes with breathing. After all what do you do in yoga to get more range of movement?
So I’ve appealed to wannbe lovers, stressed out people, executives, those concerned by organ health and athletes. Are we all feeling motivated yet?
Real Life Examples
Here’s some real life examples of what we consistently see improving when we focus on the breath work. None of this is guaranteed. But with a combination of self breath work and work from us to release the areas that are stopping your breathing well we consistently see improvements that tie in with the following research:
Belisa Vranish in another TED Talk talks about tension in the shoulders, loss of sleep, back pain, digestion issues and reduced immune function.
And then there’s a whole bunch of stuff on Stress and Well Being:
Lastly, my final TED Talk of the Blog (I promise!) all about Breathing Happiness. This inspiring talk shows how breath work helped a group of American Veterans completely remove their anxiety – not only during the course of the exercise but for a year afterwards. It also speaks about some amazing research which found that different emotions evoke a different breathing pattern in all of us!
How To Breathe Better
The average person breathes 23,000 times a day. That’s quite a lot! We want to help you breathe better in every one of those 23,000 breaths. Just think how much more oxygen you’ll be getting. Positively impacting your brain and muscle function.
We like to think of our breath work as weight training for the diaphragm. Getting it working better for you. Not only you are specifically working on your breath but also day to day. We also want you to become more aware of what you’re doing with your breath during your day. If you tune into it in stressful situations you will be aware that your breath has become shallower.
Just a quick refocus into the diaphragm and you will start to feel calmer straight away. You’ll be able to make better decisions and deal with whatever the stressful thing is that much better emotionally. Of course you need to know where your diaphragm is and how to use if first. Here’s a video of your truly showing you how to find and then how to start practicing:
If you’re struggling to get a hang of it many people find it easier if you concentrate on breathing out to start with. It just makes it easier to do the in bit. It somehow feels more natural.
There are lots of different variations on timing your breath. You can do in for four seconds, hold for 4 seconds out for 4 seconds. You can do the same with a 578 pattern. You can try to exhale twice as long as the inhale. Do whatever feels most comfortable for you. This should be relaxing after all.
Whichever method you prefer focus on relaxation during the exhalation. Let everything go. Physically focus on relaxing all the muscles in your body as you lie on your bed. Visualise the muscles getting heavier and sinking into your mattress.
Start with just 2 minutes each time you do the exercise. You may feel quite dizzy and light headed. This is Oxygen! It’s been a while since you’ve had this much. You can increase this quickly by a minute each time you do to the exercise if you’re not getting any dizziness or light headed sensations.
Then we need to get disciplined. The more we do it the more relaxed we become. The more we practice the more it becomes instinctive and the less we have to think about it.
Building it into your daily routine is the best way. You will know your routine best obviously. Here’s our favourite options:
- First Thing As You Wake Up – You’re on your back anyway. It gets your breathing set up for the day and put you in the right frame of mind to deal with what the day throws at you
- After Dropping The Kids Off At School – for the parent who has some quiet time after the chaos of the school run
- During Your Working Day – find a quiet spot in a meeting room or on your bed if working from home. Make sure you won’t be interrupted. Great for when you have a bit of block on specific piece of work or are just too stressed to work effectively
- Breathing On Your Commute – What else are you going to do? Great when driving or on the train.
- At The End Of Your Day – whether that’s working or with the kids. Put a full stop on your day and welcome in the evening with some relaxation to bring your level down. It’s cheaper and more effective than booze!
- Before You Go To Sleep – Great for helping you drift off at night and starting you off in a more relaxed deeper sleep. Great if you wake in the night or grind your teeth.
Try to do at least one of these per day. If you can do 3-4 per day that will be amazing. The key thing is doing it every day as part of your routine.
So Get Breathing!
For me the evidence is compelling. What we see clinically is backed up by an increasing amount of good quality research. More detailed and larger studies are still required to increase our understanding of the far reaching implications of good and bad breathing function but I see this as concreting what we are already seeing.
Is breathing the answer to all of the ills in your life? Probably not. But it will certainly help keep you alive. Hopefully, with some practice and building into your ‘looking after yourself’ routine you’ll be more fluid and flexible physically and emotionally to deal with what life throws at you. What are you waiting for? Get breathing folks!
If you feel you’re not making any progress or feel there is something stopping you get that fullness of breath or simply stuck in pain then give us a call and we’ll be happy to progress you onto that fullness of breath and less pain.
This post first appeared on our Brighton site.