It may seem strange to think that we should “practice” breathing. After all, it’s the one thing we’ve all done since our first second on Earth. We do it all day, every day without ever really thinking about it. But research has suggested that maybe we should be thinking about it.
If you were to turn your focus on to your breath right now, would you notice your belly moving out and in, or would you notice your chest moving? For most of us, our chest would be moving.
While this may feel natural for us now, it didn’t always. When we were babies, our stomachs would rise and fall with each breath. But as we got older, we slowly trained ourselves to keep our stomach muscles tight and contracted (usually from societal pressure to look trim). But by keeping these muscles contracted, we’re actually doing our bodies a disservice.
As we inhale, we take oxygen in, expanding our lungs and pushing our diaphragm down. When we exhale, we expel carbon dioxide, our diaphragm rises, and our lungs contract.
When we shallow breathe, oxygen likely won’t reach to the lowest portion of our lungs, which are full of blood vessels that depend on oxygen.
Breathing and the Autonomic Nervous System
You’ve probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response. It’s a reaction our body has in the face of danger or a stressful situation. What’s actually happening in this state is that our sympathetic nervous system is engaging. Adrenaline gets released, our heart rate quickens, our blood pressure rises, among other things.
The opposite of the fight-or-flight response is the rest-and-digest state. This is when the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, and a person feels calm and relaxed. In this state the long string of nerves that runs from our brains to the base of our spine, called the Vagus nerve, stimulates. This causes the heart rate to slow and become regular, blood pressure decreases, and muscles relax. This reaction can also signal to the brain to “relax” as well.
These two responses are closely connected to our breath. When we’re stressed or scared, we take quick, shallow breaths. When we’re calm, cool, and collected, our breaths are slower and deeper. But while our breath is a result of a trigger or state of mind, it can also cause a change in our bodily response too.
In other words, when you’re stressed or anxious and someone tells you to take deep breaths, they’re actually trying to help engage your parasympathetic nervous system. And if you were sitting calmly and decided to breathe quickly and shallowly, you’d notice your heart rate starting to quicken as your sympathetic nervous system became engaged.
As you may have guessed, this is where knowing how to control your breath can come in handy.
Breathwork not only can help improve your response to stress, but studies have linked regular deep breathing practice to a range of health benefits. These span from irritable bowel syndrome, depression and anxiety, and sleeplessness to lower blood pressure, a slower heart rate, and improved core muscle strength.
Ready to give it a try? Engage in this “back breathing” for at least 5 minutes, twice daily.
1. Find a comfortable spot to lie on the floor with a pillow under your head.
2. Place a book or flat object on your stomach.
3. Place your hand on your chest.
4. As you inhale, focus on moving the object upward.
5. As you exhale, focus on moving the object downward.
6. Watch this up-and-down motion of the object and develop a steady rhythm of six to eight breaths per minute.
7. Observe your hand on your chest and try to keep your chest as still as possible.
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Publishing, Harvard Health. “Take a Deep Breath.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/take-a-deep-breath.
Jewell, Tim. “Diaphragmatic Breathing and Its Benefits.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 25 Sept. 2018, www.healthline.com/health/diaphragmatic-breathing.