You might be thinking, "How does someone breathe incorrectly when breathing is automatic"? Great question. While your respiratory system is indeed automatic, the way you're currently breathing may actually be causing you more harm than good.
To understand this further, it is important to acknowledge the connection between stress and your breath.
Stress And Your Breath
When you are exposed to stressors, your sympathetic nervous system (aka "fight, flight or freeze") is activated in your body. These stressors can be physical dangers like a car slamming on its brakes in front of you, or it can come from thinking about a presentation you have to give.
Your body can't determine the difference between real-life stressors and the stressors you create in your head. Your nervous system reacts the same in both situations.
So, where does your breath come in? When your stress response is activated, your breathing becomes shallow. Your inhales and exhalations are shorter, quicker and reside in your chest.
And not only does a stressor cause this shift in your breath, but when your natural breath also becomes shallow (which is the case for most humans), you are constantly communicating with your body that it should stay in "stress mode."
This stress mode also impacts your heart by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. And in the middle of a pandemic, many of us are experiencing added stress on a daily basis.
So, we don't want to stay in that place. Chronic stress can lead to a plethora of things like illness, burnout out, fatigue and more. Whatever we can do to bring some peace in our lives, we owe it to ourselves to do it.
Relaxation And Your Breath
So, what do you do to prevent this chronically stressed-out state? Many relaxation techniques you see will give you the same advice: breathe differently.
Just like how life's stressors (and shallow chest breaths) activate your sympathetic nervous system, a different way of breathing can also activate your parasympathetic nervous system (aka your "rest and digest" state).
Long, slow inhales and exhales where you focus on breathing into your belly and rib cage are some of the quickest signals to your brain that say, "All good. No stressors here. You can chill out now."
The coolest part? When you practice breathing this way as part of your daily routine, you remind your brain and your body that this is, in fact, your default setting (rather than the shallow breath caused by your fast-paced, stressful life).
Pretty cool, right?
Related: A Guide to Practicing Yoga at Home
Breathing Exercises that Will Change Your Life
Now that it's clear that your breath can either increase your stress levels and lead to illness or help create more ease and relaxation in your life, are you ready to learn 3 specific breathing tips?
When it comes to deep, diaphragmatic breathing, it's important to remember that you are reteaching your body a basic function. And therefore, it may take some time before deep breathing becomes second nature.
Here are three exercises designed to help you create a new breathing pattern. So get into a comfortable position, and let's start breathing.
Belly + Rib Cage Breathing
As mentioned before, this specific breathing technique will help you calm your nervous system and therefore shift from an anxious or overwhelmed state to a relaxed and more present state.
As you inhale, imagine your belly filling up like a balloon. Then, allow your breath to move up to your rib cage as it expands outward. Slowly exhale and repeat 5-10 times, working to make every breath in and out longer and longer. Take note of how you feel afterward.
Breathing this way encourages longer breaths and an increased lung capacity, which is key in retraining your body to breathe as it's naturally intended to breathe.
Long Exhales Out Through Your Mouth
By making your exhales longer than your inhales, your nervous system shifts faster. To add another powerful element, exhaling through your mouth rather than your nose will amplify shift.
Breath in through your nose for 4 counts, then exhaling out through your mouth for 6 to 8 counts. Repeat 5-10 times. Take a mental note of how you feel after doing this.
Consciously Breathe Once Per Day
This tip may be the most powerful. Even though you don't technically need to breathe consciously, when you do, everything shifts.
Set an alarm on your phone mid-day that reminds you to breathe. Take slow, deep breaths and recognize that you have this untapped superpower at your fingertips anytime, anywhere.
Perhaps even reading this has allowed you to stop and check-in with your breath. Remember that the way you breathe can either support you or add more stress to your mind and body. Try out these three tips and witness the shifts.
- Breathe into your belly + rib cage (not your chest)
- Practice long exhales out through your mouth
- Take time to consciously breathe at least once per day.
A Breath of Fresh Air
With a little intention, you may find that something as simple as breathing can really impact your body's health. Not only will it help combat mental stress, but breathing can also help you keep you physically fit.
While these tips can help retrain your stomach muscles to engage belly breathing, it's important to remember that these are general guidelines and not individualized medical advice. If you struggle with lung health (COPD, shortness of breath, etc.), you should always consult your doctor to find the right exercises for your body.
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