Breathing seems so basic. Yet we don’t all breathe in quite the same way. Our breathing patterns are partly something we learn by mimicking the breathing habits of people who around us when we are very young. Eventually these patterns become habitual. Some people breath more quickly; some mostly with their chest, others with their diaphragm; some breath unevenly, breath-holding at times; some sigh a lot or yawn; some people have a cough habit. And breathing gets more rapid when we are more active, slowing down when we relax, and even more when we sleep.
The way we breathe changes according to how we feel. So when we feel tense, anxious or angry for instance we tend to take quicker shallow breaths using the top of the chest. Rapid upper chest breathing is part of the ‘flight and fight response’ – the body’s emergency mode. Breathing faster is what the body does when it needs extra oxygen for emergency action. Rapid breathing puts the body on alert, but it should slow down when the danger has passed. If it continues however, it is a pattern that will boost the amount of strain and tension in the body.
However, when the body is relaxed or resting we breathe in a slower, more rhythmical way (just watch how a sleeping baby breathes), and the belly moves in and out, while the chest does very little. This is because the diaphragm is doing the work. It acts like the piston in a bicycle pump, moving down and drawing air into the lungs. As it does this the belly expands during the in-breath. Then as the diaphragm moves up into the chest cavity to push out the air, the belly goes in. So when you are breathing in a relaxed way – using ‘diaphragmatic’ or ‘abdominal’ or ‘belly’ breathing – it will look as though the belly is filling as you breath in and emptying as you breath out.
When you fill a glass with water, it fills from the bottom up, In the same way the lungs fill efficiently and with minimum effort when you use your diaphragm. The diaphragm draws air down into the spacious, lower chest in a more relaxed and efficient way than chest muscles can when they pull air into the smaller volume of the upper chest.
So breathing with the upper chest is inefficient and tiring. And it tends to make us feel less relaxed than when breathing with the belly. This breathing-effect is two-way: when we feel stressed we breath faster. But breathing faster can make you feel more stressed.
Breathing with the diaphragm encourages a calmer mind. It triggers some muscle relaxation too, which in turn helps the mind settle down. When you practice breathing this way, you create a virtuous circle as the mind and body calm one another down.
Letting your diaphragm do your breathing for you helps you maintain physical and emotional balance. This is why yoga and martial arts training, as well as athletic and artistic performance techniques all emphasise the use of the diaphragm.
Some people breathe this way without having to think about it, but many have lost this healthy habit, and instead use the upper chest (the sort of breathing which is only needed when we have to be very active) even when we aren’t exercising.
People who over-breathe often complain of symptoms that include
* Light headiness
* Head neck and upper body aching * Giddiness
* Shortness of breath
* Heart palpitations * Numbness
* Chest pains
* Dry mouth
* Clammy hands
* Difficulty swallowing * Weakness * Tremors * Fatigue
Learning to breathe better
Many people find their stress-related symptoms improve greatly when they learn how to slow their breathing down and use their diaphragm. You can learn this easy relaxed breathing style, and when you do, two things will happen. First, you will begin to become more aware of times when you start breathing with your chest, or when your breathing speeds up. Eventually, over time your breath will more easily settle into this belly breathing style.
Regular practice will help you develop the new habit. This unfamiliar way of breathing might feel odd at first. This will pass, as should the sort of mild anxiety, which some people who are not accustomed to relaxation may experience at first. But most people find they quickly get used to what it feels like when they let go of tension. Get some advice though if you find that relaxation is in any way uncomfortable or scary. Generally with a practice you will begin to feel more energetic, more poised and relaxed in your body, and more resistant to illness and injury once you have mastered better breathing.
What’s your breathing style?
Speed. Notice how you are breathing right now. If you are feeling stressed it might feel erratic and irregular or even panting or slightly gasping, or you may find you are breath-holding some of the time.
Upper chest or belly? Place one hand over your belly button, the other on your upper chest. Notice which hand moves most each time you slowly breath out.
Now find a comfortable place to sit quietly for a few minutes. How does your breathing change? Speed? Chest/belly pattern?
Not sure whether you’re using your diaphragm? Try putting a hand on your upper belly and the other on your upper chest. Now as you take a normal out-breath, notice how your hands move. Did the one on your chest move in more than the one on your belly did? If so then you’re probably using your chest more than you need to. To activate your diaphragm as you breathe out through your mouth, purse your lips and push the breath out as though you were blowing out a candle,. When you’re blowing out like this, the extra pressure should make your diaphragm work a bit harder, so that the belly movement feels more obvious. As you blow out your belly should move in. Then as your in-breath follows, you should feel your belly expand as the diaphragm draws your breath in.
Better breathing to deal with stress-related symptoms
The long-term aim is to breathe less! This seems to contradict all the advice we hear about deep breathing being good for you. And it sounds like the opposite of yoga- based power-breathing methods that rev the system up by getting rid of carbon dioxide and oxygenating the blood. In fact this is about using the breath to calm the system down. Which is why it probably wont feel all that ‘natural’ at first. But before long, if you stay with the process, your body will remember that this is how you used to breathe, and begin to sense that it is actually an easier way to breathe. Once this sinks in, you will find you start noticing when your breathing gets upset (by stress), and that your body will be much more able to choose the better breathing option. This is why you need to do regular homework to help your body get used to the feeling and rhythm of better breathing.
For the best results practice one of these exercises every day. Exercise one: breathing to relax/relaxing to breathe
Find a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted. Make sure you’re comfortable, with your body completely supported, perhaps lying on the floor with a pillow. (If you find that you generally fall asleep during practice then do it sitting up instead).
Make sure you’re in a warm room or have a blanket over you. The body soon cools down when your very still. And it’s hard to relax if you feel cold. Give yourself at least 20 minutes. Shut the door and unplug the phone. If there is anyone else around let them know that you shouldn’t be disturbed. Let them know you’re taking some time out to refresh yourself. Turn the lights down.
It is best to do this exercise before a meal or at least two hours afterwards because a full stomach may turn your relaxation session into a nap. You may find relaxation easier if you close your eyes. As you relax deeply you may feel sensations of warmth or heaviness. If you find any of these sensations unpleasant, simply open your eyes, re-orientate yourself and carry on with the exercise once you feel ready.
Lie down on your back and place one hand over your belly button, the other on your upper chest. Notice which hand moves most each time you slowly breath out. Pay no attention to your in-breaths; they will happen on their own. Spend a little time just noticing how your body feels, letting your attention move around your body noticing any obvious tension. You can start with your toes and slowly work up your legs to hips, bottom, belly, waist, back, chest, shoulders arms hands, back up the arms, shoulders, neck and throat, jaw, face, eyes, forehead, scalp. Let this happen for a few minutes so the body has time to settle.
Now just notice your breathing but don’t try to change it. Perhaps your chest hand is moving less now and your belly hand is moving more, because as you relax, the chest has less and less work to do.
Focus on the out-breath and let the in-breath take care of itself. After each in-breath pause for a second then inhale slowly and easily again at your own pace. Count at your own speed during each breath. Let the breath flow deep into your belly, without having to work hard at it. With each in-breath your belly-hand will rise up as the diaphragm draws the breath in.
Let yourself breathe out fully a few times and count at your own pace each time you breath out. It may help to press in on your belly initially to help the out breath. With practice, no effort is required to maintain a smooth comfortable rhythm and flow. Without trying to, your breathing will tend to slow down. Enjoy the process for a ten minutes.
Exercise two. Practice letting you CO2 levels rise
If you have been over-breathing for months or even years, your CO2 levels need to rise. You can gradually achieve this by learning to let your breathing get slower and shallower. Don’t start this until you feel the got the hang of exercise one.
Do exercise one for ten minutes, then start to see how it feels to let your CO2 rise deliberately. This may be surprisingly hard for you to do for more than a few seconds. This is because people with the over-breathing habit get used to low levels of carbon dioxide. So as you deliberately breathe less and the CO2 levels rise, you may feel some ‘breath hunger’. That’s why it’s good to introduce this shallow breathing practice very gradually.
As a longtime over-breather it’s important to begin to get your CO2 level back to normal. Because as you succeed in this, many of your symptoms will disappear. So you may find you need to tolerate ‘breath hunger’ a bit at time. This means practicing very shallow breathing for only a few minutes at a time over the course of a few weeks.
If you find that when you try this you have to take big breaths afterwards then you are probably trying too hard. In that case take your time, and do shorter sessions until you get used to how it feels to let your CO2 levels rise. Allow a few weeks to gradually get more comfortable with this as you build up your reserves of carbon dioxide again.
With practice you will be able to quieten your breathing whenever you feel yourself becoming stressed or agitated.
Exercise three: sitting practice
This is a useful exercise for the habitual upper chest breather who finds it hard to stop using the chest and should muscles to breath with.
Sit comfortably in a chair that has arms. Rest your arms on the arms of the chair. Give yourself time to notice tense areas of your body, and as you do that they will tend to relax.
Gently press down on the arms with your elbows. This tends to make it more difficult to use your neck and shoulder muscles while you are doing a breathing exercise.
If you are not sure whether you are using your belly on not, try the pursed lips/candle method for a few breaths. After a normal inhalation purse your lips (as if you were going to whistle) and push the breath out through your mouth (blowing out that candle), counting at your own pace until you sense a need to breathe in. Don’t force the in-breaths; they will happen on their own anyway as you settle down. Don’t try too hard. Just focus on the out-breaths.
Keep the breaths slow and gentle. Notice how it feels to be using your belly more. By exhaling fully and completely, you should find that more of the inhalation will come from the diaphragm without trying.
Once you have settled down into using your belly more to breathe with you can stop using the pursed lip/candle method. If your nose is clear enough, breathe easily through your nose with closed lips. After the out-breath, pause briefly for a count of ’1, 2′, then let the breath come back in easily without trying, through your nose.
You might soon find that you can let your out-breath be longer than your in-breath Remember though, this isn’t about deep breathing; it’s about easy relaxed slow breathing. So practice slow breathing in this way for 10 minutes every day until you feel confident with this technique.
The 7- 11 exercise
Practice the 7-11, so that once you are good at it you can start using this method in situations that wind you up. It will calm and ‘centre’ you. 7-11 uses a simple and effective counting method while paying attention to breathing with your diaphragm.
Before you start practicing 7-11 you need to have mastered a few of the basic breathing skills, and so feel confident that -
• You can activate your diaphragm for belly breathing
• You can sense when you are using your upper chest and know how not to
• You have learned to slow your breathing down deliberately
• You can – at least briefly – tolerate a rise in your CO2 levels
When people are feeling tense, they tend to breathe more quickly using the top of the chest. Breathing this way helps deliver more oxygen – which is just what’s needed if we have to escape of fight – and it puts the body on alert by preparing the upper limbs for combat. Here we see the body working as if it were still hunting on the open plains where mankind evolved.
However, the problems we face in our daily lives now, cant often be solved by running or fighting. Yet that’s how the body responds to threat, whether real or imagined. But this pattern of upper body tension and over-breathing – especially if it becomes a habit – only makes emotional tension worse, and it tends to turn up the volume on our sensitivity to pain, increase the tension in muscles, and makes us more unstable emotionally. In other words it feeds a vicious circle of pain, tension and irritability.
In quite the opposite way, breathing with the diaphragm – which is what the body does when we are sleeping or very relaxed – helps create a mental state of calm in which it is easier to quieten the body down. It also triggers a release of muscle tension and so allows the mind to settle down. So when you practice this way of breathing it creates the opposite of a vicious circle as mental calmness and bodily relaxation reinforce one another.
There is a particular form of breathing which can be a great help (no matter what state you are in) if you…
* Feel depressed
* Feel exhausted
* Feel tense or achy
* Have difficulty sleeping
* Have difficulty concentrating
* Feel agitated or anxious
If you are feeling emotionally wound up, this technique can help you reduce the body’s arousal. And 7-11 can be a powerful tool for recovery from exhaustion and for reducing how stress affects you.
The idea is to make each out-breath last longer than each in-breath. Emphasising the out-breath and letting the in-breath happen spontaneously, helps the diaphragm work without your having to think about it. This has the effect of stimulating the body’s natural relaxation response. it does this partly by quieting the ‘fight and flight response’, and by boosting the body’s calming and healing processes.
Try this. You can do it anywhere – in bed, on a bus or the train, even while walking slowly.
Start by counting at your own pace until you find you find a speed of counting that lets you go from one to eleven on each out-breath……..
When this feels easy, start count from one to seven on each in-breath, counting at the same rate……
You will find you have to breathe out more softly so that the out-breath lasts longer, and fully empties your chest.
Counting helps you keep the rhythm going, and to make the out-breath about half as long again as the in-breath. It also focuses your mind so you cant so easily be worrying or analysing at the same time.
Gradually find a soft and gentle breathing rate that’s comfortable for you. The important thing is to keep the rate constant without getting out of breath. Generally the rate begins to slow down after a while as you relax more into it.
Most people find that 10 minutes a day of 7/11 breathing really helps them. But it does take a little practice and needs to be learned as a new skill. It can be hard to keep count when you first start – but keep up the homework, it gets easier with practice. Once you have mastered the method it becomes a powerful tool you can use to calm and centre yourself when you feel stressed or anxious.