On average, our lungs breathe in and out around 20,000 times a day, something we do without putting much thought into it. As simple as this may seem, breathing is a process that requires our nose, mouth, throat, trachea, lungs, diaphragm, and other surrounding muscles to work together in tandem to get oxygen to our cells and produce the carbon dioxide we breathe out.
The way in which we breathe affects many aspects of our health, including brain function, blood pressure, sleep, mood, and the body’s ability to fight inflammation. Though most people aren’t aware of their own breathing patterns, many of us are shallow chest breathers. This means we use our intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) to inhale short breaths of air. These repeated short, shallow breaths result in less air getting into the lungs. Shallow breathing day in and day out causes a stress response in our sympathetic nervous system. (The sympathetic controls our fight-or-flight response; the parasympathetic is responsible for the calming rest and digest response.) With shallow breathing, our bodies become primed for chronic tension with tight muscles, rounded shoulders, neck pain, headaches, fatigue, increased heart rate, and sometimes an anxious feeling. On an even deeper level, shallow breathing over a long period of time can lower lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that plays an important role in fighting infections in our bodies.
Conversely, breathing from the diaphragm (the muscle below the lungs), draws more air into the lungs. With diaphragmatic breathing, deep breaths are achieved by inhaling through the nose and breathing out through the mouth. Our stomach muscles, abdomen, and diaphragm are all fully engaged with diaphragmatic breathing. When we become mindful of our breathing, we can control the breaths we take and how they impact our overall health. Deep breathing, or breathing from the diaphragm, can:
- Release endorphins from the brain to promote a sense of relaxation and calm (this can be very helpful when trying to fall asleep)
- Relieve stress from the body to give us more energy
- Release muscle tension and decrease pain
- Help the heart balance its ability to respond to stressors
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve immunity and decrease inflammation in the body
- Improve cognitive abilities
WFP’s Take-Home Advice
If you are experiencing any breathing issues, it is important to see your medical provider or a specialist to assess your symptoms.
- Controlled breathing essentially begins with mindfulness — the awareness of how you are breathing. Much like meditation, there is a mind and body connection with each breath you take. You can even think of your breathing work as purposeful, breath-focused meditation. To learn more about guided meditation and breath-focused meditation, try these smartphone apps: Waking Up, Calm, and Headspace.
- Start with the basics of deep breathing. Set aside some quiet time once or twice a day to do this breath work, and remember that diaphragmatic breathing means inhaling through your nose and breathing out through your mouth. To help engage your core and facilitate a balanced, stable position, sit or lie flat on a comfortable surface while doing breathing exercises rather than standing up. When you’re in a comfortable position, relax and place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. Breathe in through your nose for about two seconds and allow your stomach to expand while keeping your chest still — the air you breathe in through your nose should expand your abdomen. Then press down gently on your stomach as you release your breath slowly through your mouth (keep your lips close together as if drinking through a straw).
- Try the 4–7–8 breathing technique. Begin by resting your tongue on the ridge of tissue behind your front teeth. Keep your tongue in this position throughout the entire exercise. Part your lips and exhale through your mouth with a whoosh sound. Then with your lips closed, inhale softly through your nose while mentally counting to four. Hold your breath while counting to seven. Then exhale your complete breath through your mouth, making a whoosh sound while counting to eight. Inhale again and repeat the breathing cycle three more times for a total of four full breaths. Watch how to do this breathing technique here.
- Visualization breathing is another calming technique to balance the mind and body. You can try this breath work while visualizing something simple like numbers. With numbered breathing, start by inhaling deeply until you can’t breathe in more air. Then exhale all of the air from your lungs. With eyes closed, inhale deeply while picturing the number 1. Hold your breath for two seconds and then release. Inhale again while picturing the number 2, hold your breath for two seconds, and then release. Repeat again until you reach the number 8. You can also visualize colors while inhaling and exhaling. Focus on a favorite color while breathing in slow and rhythmically. Let that color flow through your mind as you breathe out slow and rhythmically.
- You can also use guided imagery to visualize a place where you feel calm. Keep this image in mind while inhaling slowly and exhaling slowly. The purpose of this kind of breath exercise is to draw in calm with each inhale and release tension on each exhale. Your breathing should be calm, slow, and rhythmic throughout.
- Breath-focused work can be done anywhere, anytime. To maximize the benefits of mindful breathing, try breathing in fresh air outside in nature.
Sources and References:
Rifkin, R. How shallow breathing affects your whole body. headspace.com. Retrieved December 9, 2021. https://www.headspace.com/articles/shallow-breathing-whole-body
Jewell, T. and Hoshaw, C. (2021, November 5). What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing? healthline.com. Retrieved December 9, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/health/diaphragmatic-breathing#whats-happening
Fletcher, J. (2019, February 19). How to Use 4-7-8 Breathing for Anxiety. medicalnewstoday.com. Retrieved December 9, 2021. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324417.php
Majsiak, B. (2019, April 26). 5 Ways to Practice Breath-Focused Meditation. everydayhealth.com. Retrieved December 9, 2021. https://www.everydayhealth.com/alternative-health/living-with/ways-practice-breath-focused-meditation/
Raypole, C. (2020, May 28). 5 Visualization Techniques to Add to Your Meditation Practice. healthline.com.Retrieved December 9, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/health/visualization-meditation#color-breathing