Breathing by definition is something we don’t normally think about let alone practice, since it’s an involuntary response that just occurs. However the evidence is piling up in favor of spending some time not only thinking about breathing, but practicing it as well.
Paced abdominal breathing leads to lower stress levels, fewer incidents of hyperventilation and panic attacks, as well as a reduction in worrisome thoughts and sleepless nights. Not to mention better digestion, lower blood pressure, and a more capable immune system.
On the contrary, holding your breath, hyperventilating and chronic shallow breathing can take its toll directly on your nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as your body’s ability to relax. Similar effects are seen on the nervous systems after both short and long-term stress reactions, where there is a marked increase in sympathetic activity. This increased sympathetic activity is commonly known as the “fight or flight reaction”.
The fight or flight reaction, causes the liver to sink glucose and cholesterol into our blood stream, compromising our ability to detect hunger properly and interfering with our digestive processes. It also disrupts our body’s balance of oxygen, CO2 and nitric oxide, which are essential to our immune system and are associated with learning, memory, sleeping, pain, inflammation and rheumatism. Furthermore, increased sympathetic arousal is also a strong predictor of cardiac diseased and associated with many anxiety and mood related disorders.
How should you be breathing?
To practice proper abdominal breathing, lay or sit back in a relaxed position with your legs and arms loosely engaged. Rest your fingertips on stomach. As you slowly inhale, allow your stomach to expand into your hands, and as you exhale allow your stomach to flatten out. Try not to force your stomach to flatten out, but rather allow the air to slowly leave your body. Slow your pace to the breathing rate of 5 -7 breaths a minute.
When should you be practicing?/
You should practice abdominal breathing at least three times a week, but ideally for 15 minutes daily, outside of stressful situations.
For daily stress-
If you are person who usually worries throughout the day, set aside time in the morning, before work. Take notice of your mood in general as your day progresses. You are likely to notice that on the days you practice breathing you feel more in control, and less stressed overall.
Evaluate the differences between the days you practice and the days you forgo. Track how good you feel on a scale from 1 to 10 against the days you practice breathing. Overtime, you will notice a general trend towards feeling less stressed. This is because, like the experience of exercising to build muscle mass in order to boost our metabolisms, overtime breathing exercises build tolerance towards stress.
Becoming mindful of your breath throughout the day
Do the breathing as often as you can; however it’s not necessary to do this breathing all day. The idea is to develop better breathing habits, so your not experiencing apnea (holding your breath) in situations that you may not be aware of as stressful. These small situation or “pebble stones” never seem to register as something significant, however, collectively they add up. For example the dangers of email apnea (holding or shallow breathing, while doing email) have been warned against..
The idea is to create more frequent awareness of your breathing, while becoming more mindful of the event as it occurs. As you slow down your breathing, try feel every movement involved, especially the air expanding and retracting in your abdominal area.
To increase attention and mindfulness of your breathing set a reminder on your cell phone or clock to remind you to take 2 deep breathes every hour.
This way you will get in the habit of doing the breathing throughout the day and not just when you are stressed.
If you have trouble falling asleep then practice your breathing in the evenings. The breathing will eventually induce a physical sleep state, usually after about 20 – 30 minutes. However, if you focus too much on the breathing for the sake of falling asleep you are likely to add unnecessary pressure, maintaining your state of arousal. Some people make the mistake of starting the breathing at bedtime. The best time is after work, but about an hour or two before bed. Keep the mindset you are breathing to practice and to unwind and relax, not to fall asleep. As you get into bed, later on, do some more breathing, but with less determined focus.
At this point, all of benefits of regularly practiced breathing are not known, but as the application across disciplines continues to broaden I imagine so will the scientific study. I am sure you realize that similar breathing exercises are taught and practiced in yoga, pilates and martial art classes.
But did you realize that speech pathologists, and voice/acting coaches also practice breathing with their clients. This is because our exhalation carries the sounds of our voices. So the next time you are concerned about speaking in public, practice your breathing.