Thursday, 8 February 2018

Wellbeing Basics: Breathing

The second in my Wellbeing Basics series. The first one on sleep can be found here.

Here's a blonde joke (disclaimer: as a blonde-ish person myself I feel I am allowed to make one…sort of) - A blonde walks into a beauty shop with a pair of headphones on. She asks for a haircut. The blonde is led to a chair and asked to sit down. "Make my hair look good, but whatever you do, don't take off the headphones", the blonde instructs. The blonde falls asleep during the haircut and the hair stylist thinks, "It’s really hard to cut with these headphones on". She takes them off, and the blonde dies. The stylist calls an ambulance and when they take the blonde away the intrigued stylist picks up the headphones and takes a listen. She hears a little voice saying "Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out..." So now you all know (if you hadn’t guessed already) that breathing is rather important – and you can actually be doing it wrong!

Why should I care about my breathing so much?

Apart from the obvious (see above), our breathing – or more importantly the way we breathe – can have a big impact on, not only our bodies, but also our emotions. Breathing is an automatic mechanism. It’s controlled by our autonomic nervous system and we don’t have to consciously think about breathing in and out. Because our bodies are incredibly clever, our autonomic nervous system adjusts our breathing to suit our body’s needs. If we are exerting ourselves, if we are anxious, if we are ill – our breathing changes as a result. This can be very helpful. However, it can also sometimes be unhelpful. Over-breathing (or hyperventilation) can upset our body’s chemistry and in turn result in negative physical and emotional symptoms. The opposite problem – hypoventilation (breathing too slowly) can result in too much carbon dioxide being in the blood and not enough oxygen. Studies have shown that there is a high correlation between ‘incorrect’ breathing and a number of illnesses, for example: heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic inflammation, anxiety – to name but a few.

Someone told me I’m breathing from the wrong place – how is that possible?

We know that breathing too quickly or too slowly can be unhelpful, but it also matters where you’re breathing from. This may sound odd, but a lot of people breathe from the ‘wrong’ place.
Here’s a simple test to check: if you take a minute or so and concentrate on your breathing what part of your body is rising and falling? Are your chest and shoulders moving, or is your abdomen?
If your chest and shoulders are rising and falling, this probably means you aren’t using your diaphragm (a huge, dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage) to breathe. The diaphragm is the best place to breathe from. Chest breathing can mean you feel anxious a lot of the time, that you’re over-breathing and causing potential imbalances to your body chemistry. Disproportionate amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide can have a radical impact on your health – meaning you can feel fatigued, nervy or cross; while potentially doing yourself more serious damage in the long run.

I find the most helpful way to calm myself is to concentrate on my stomach and breathe from there. Think of your abdomen as a balloon that’s slowly filling up with air as you inhale and then slowly releasing the air (or deflating the balloon) as you exhale – try to do this without your chest or shoulders rising. Another option is to lie flat on the floor or your bed and place a book on your stomach, covering your belly button, and try to lift the book by breathing in and out – this can help focus your mind on exactly where you should be breathing from. Attempt to make your stomach bigger (vanity will have to be out aside!) – this way your body will learn to breathe from your diaphragm rather than your chest.

Many people can find it a slightly uncomfortable or strange experience to change their breathing pattern – but I would suggest you try it and keep persevering! You may feel sleepy at first, or get some funny flutterings in your diaphragm – these are all part of your body adapting to quite a significant change to its norm. It is, however, a positive change. If you can practice this technique for a couple of minutes a day, you will slowly start to breathe from your diaphragm reaping the rewards, both physically and emotionally, as a result.

Five tips to breathe in a healthier way:

·       Join a choir – you will learn all about breath control and diaphragmatic breathing, plus it can be a fun and rewarding activity!

·       Try 7/11 breathing for five to ten minutes every day – that’s inhaling for seven seconds and then exhaling for eleven seconds, this can help regulate your breathing and re-balance your body chemistry.

·       Be more mindful – we can unconsciously hold our breath when we are anxious, angry, concentrating or exerting ourselves; try to be more aware of your breath and how you are breathing – I talk a little about breathing in an old video of mine here (at about 9 and a half minutes in).

·       Practice yoga or Tai Chi – a lot of yoga and Tai Chi exercises include breathing techniques which may prove beneficial, plus you’re getting some exercise at the same time; it’s a win, win really!

·       Download a breathing app – it may sound very close to the blonde joke I opened with, but they can be very useful as a guide if you need to quickly regulate your breathing or calm down – I’ve been using Breathing Zone, but there are lots of free options which I am sure are just as helpful. I talked a bit about Breathing Zone in this video here.

Do you breathe using your diaphragm? What are some things you find helpful to regulate your breathing?

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