Of course, you know how to breathe, right?
Turns out-a lot of us DON’T know how to breathe—yeah, yeah, we have our autonomic nervous system that makes sure we breathe and keeps us alive, but are we doing it correctly? Chances are, we may not be, and breathing is one of those things we just take for granted like blinking your eye. And yet, breathing is so basic, it is also very easy to ignore. But breathing is one of those functions that is BOTH involuntary AND voluntary.
We know breathing makes us feel better when we are anxious and when we are under stress. We even see many athletes having ritualistic routines before play where they take very controlled breaths to ensure they are focused, calm and ready to play (oxygenated brain & body).
So how can that help us? We have currently all been going through stressful, unknown circumstances. We are all looking for ways to stay busy, stay calm, reduce stress and stay healthy. There is some good science that is supporting all you need to do is breathe.
A 2016 study in Science magazine suggests slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit; fast, erratic breathing increases activity, which in turn influences emotional states. This study suggests if we can control our breathing, we can help control our emotions. (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6332/1411/tab-figures-data)
There is another study in The Journal of Neuroscience that suggests nasal breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract the nervous system’s “fight or flight” response to stress. Controlled breathing triggers a parasympathetic response, according to the theory, and may also improve immune system resiliency as a “downstream health benefit.” The study also found improvements in energy, metabolism, and more efficient insulin secretion, which results in better blood sugar management. (https://www.jneurosci.org/content/36/49/12448). This would support the idea that that controlled breathing isn’t only a counterbalance to stress, but also valuable for improving overall health.
But really, how do we practice “breathing” if it is an automatic response. Here are some suggestions to try voluntary breathing:
- Sit or lie down with a neutral spine (think of those practiced yogis). Sit on both sits bones or lie on your bed/floor with very little curve in lower back, do not extend your neck, relax all musculature, especially your upper shoulders.
- Where is your tongue? When you’re in that relaxed state, your tongue should gently float up to the roof of your mouth and fit in nicely behind those little bumps behind your teeth.
- Your inhale should always come deep, through your nose and think about expansion in your ribs and diaphragm, with the tongue on the roof of your mouth.
- EXHALE-yes, breathing is NOT just about the inhale, but the EXHALE is just as important. Breathe out through your mouth (tongue can be down now) and if you are not as good at the breathing out, breathe out forcefully for a couple of breaths, like you are blowing up a balloon or a kazoo. You may learn that you are good at inhaling, but maybe haven’t activated your diaphragm and became not as good at exhaling. (Your diaphragm is a muscle, too! It can get weak when all we do is walk around inhaling through our open mouth).
- If you’ve got that down, play around with your breathing by adding some counting. Using the techniques above Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of 5 and exhale for a count of 6. Pause and start again.
- You can also follow a 1 to 1 technique and apply alternate nostril breathing with the above techniques.
- Breathe in for a 4 count, and out for a 4 count-pause. Breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth, pausing and starting again is the most basic way to get your breathing down.
Is breathing is a lot more complicated than you thought?
The next time you are anxious, fatigued, stressed or just feeling off-take a few minutes and practice that voluntary breathing by taking 5 deep breaths with your good posture and tongue placement—see if anything changes within your body. Science suggests it may be a better result than taking a pill.
We have resources within us to stay healthy and calm. Just breathe.