The Way You Breathe Matters
It might surprise you to learn that there are multiple ways to breathe and some are better for you than others. After all, it’s such an automatic process, we never give it a second thought. But for many of us, shallow breathing is the way we breathe all the time, and it has a significant and harmful effect on our health. Shallow breathing deprives the body’s tissues and organs of vital oxygen. It also prevents the body from properly expelling carbon dioxide. It’s easy to make shallow breathing a habit, particularly when we’re stressed or anxious. We may also be breathing shallowly when we are deeply focused on a task.
The Effects of Shallow Breathing
The medical term for a regular, healthy breathing pattern is eupnea. It’s deep, rhythmic, and reflexive. When we’re stressed or anxious, breathing becomes short and shallow. A chain reaction begins to occur, as more shallow breathing leads to an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood, which prompts even more anxiety. Shallow breathing can be a cause of anxiety and a result of it as well. Other effects include:
- Elevated heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Poor concentration
- Brain fog
- Chronic stress on organs and blood vessels
- Impaired immune response
What Affects How We Breathe?
Poor posture is one of the most common and impactful contributors to shallow breathing. Poor posture is particularly a factor for people with sedentary lifestyles and those who work sitting at a desk. Leaning forward while slouched down in a chair is a perfect recipe for poor breathing. A slouched posture compresses the lower chest and abdomen, the vital location where deep breathing starts. Compressing this area prevents the muscles we rely upon for proper breathing from contracting completely, resulting in shallow breaths.
Several other factors can cause shallow breathing. Any physical condition like pain, back or rib injuries, and any disease affects muscles and joints can significantly impact breathing. Mental health is another category that alters how we breathe. Examples include anxiety, PTSD, hyperactivity, and stress.
Are You a Shallow Breather?
When we’re stressed out, we tend to use chest breathing. Chest breathing relies on the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and chest to inhale. As the rib’s muscles and the diaphragm aren’t involved, chest breathing won’t produce deep breathing and only inflates the upper quarter of the lungs.
Belly breathing is what we need to aim for. Belly breathing uses the entirety of our lungs, allowing us to get the most oxygen into our systems on every inhalation.
To find out how you normally breathe, put your hand against your abdomen in the space under your ribs. Take a breath and notice if your hand moves outward. If it does, you’re breathing correctly. If your hand moves just a little and your shoulders rise, you’re breathing shallowly. Another option to learn about your breathing habits is the wide array of wearable technology that has become more common over the last several years.
Better Breathing for Better Health
Not only will deep breathing energize you, but it can also help relax you. When you take a deep inhalation, your heart rate briefly increases. On a long exhalation, the vagus nerve, one of the major nerve trunks in the body, releases the chemical acetylcholine, which not only slows your heart rate, but also promotes a feeling of relaxation.
Breathing Exercises and Tips
Rib expansion: Put your hands on your sides over your lower ribs. Take a deep breath and expand your ribs to push your hands apart. By expanding your ribs more effectively, your lungs fill more completely.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: This is also called belly breathing. Before you start this exercise in healthy breathing, make sure your posture is correct. Sit up comfortably with your spine straight.
- Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest, right over your heart.
- Begin your breath by contracting your diaphragm and inhale through your nose. Your hand that’s over your belly will begin to move, pushing your hand up.
- Inhale for 2 seconds, then hold your breath for 3 seconds. Exhale through your mouth for 5 seconds.
- Repeat this exercise as often as you need.
Square Breathing: This exercise works to slow your breathing and can be helpful with stress or anxiety to trigger the brain to calm down.
- Breathe in for a count of 4
- Hold your breath for a count of 4
- Breathe out for a count of 4
- Hold your breath for a count of 4
- Repeat until your natural breath rate has slowed and deepened
Nose vs Mouth Breathing: When you notice yourself breathing through your mouth, try to switch and only breathe through your nose. Inhaling through your nose can help to slow breathing and ensure that foreign particles, like dust and pollen, are prevented from entering the lungs. The nose and sinuses also warm air and add moisture to it, allowing your lungs to use air more efficiently.
Take a Break to Breathe: We often do not notice when our breathing becomes shallow. One solution is to set a timer to remind you to take a deep breath. This will only take a few seconds and you can continue with your task with more oxygen in your brain and body.
Breathing Apps: There are a growing number of apps focused on breathing. They have exercises for rib expansion, deep breathing, slower breathing, improving lung capacity, and many others.
Breathing plays a role in our physical and mental wellbeing. As it is something we all do every day, all day, small changes can have large effects. Happy breathing!
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