Take a moment to notice how you’re breathing.
Do you breathe through your nose or your mouth? As you inhale, can you feel parts of your chest or stomach moving? Breathing isn’t something that we often pay a lot of attention to. After all, it’s an automatic process. But interestingly, there is an optimal way to breathe that can positively impact our overall health and wellbeing.
The ideal breath should begin in the nose.
The nasal passages are designed to filter and partially cleanse the air we breathe, and warming it to body temperature before it enters the lungs. Additionally, nasal breathing oxygenates the blood 10-15% more than when we breathed through the mouth. This is because enzymes in the nasal sinuses naturally produce nitric oxide gas which is inhaled with every breath, and this dilates our blood vessels, which increases the uptake of oxygen in the body.1Lundberg, J. O. (2008). Nitric Oxide and the Paranasal Sinuses. The Anatomical Record, 291(11), 1479-1484. doi:10.1002/ar.20782
How we breathe is usually associated with our state of mind. Are you calm and relaxed? You will probably take slower, deeper breaths. Feeling stressed or anxious? You’ll likely find that you use short, sharp breaths through the chest. At times of fight or flight, quickened chest breathing and a rapid heart rate were beneficial for our survival. However, given the continual states of stress many of us live with, shallow chest breathing perpetuates this cycle, keeping the body in a state of stress.2Hales, D. and Hales, J. (2018). Personal Stress Management: From surviving to thriving. Cengage.
Shallow chest breathing uses smaller muscles, such as the pectorals in the chest, trapezius at the tops of the shoulder blades, and scalene muscles in the neck, which tire easily and this creates tension in the neck and shoulders. Chest breathing places strain on our muscles and yet we take in less air, so the body receives less oxygen, which creates feelings of fatigue. Meaning more effort; less reward. This can be compounded by poor posture and the tendency to suck our stomachs in. Sitting with a tight abdomen and rounded shoulders collapses the chest and rib cage, which means there’s simply less space in the lungs to breathe.
We need to re-train ourselves to breathe from the abdomen
Abdominal breathing uses the diaphragm, which is a dome shaped muscle that sits below the lungs and heart and above the abdominal organs. As we inhale, the diaphragm expands downwards, moving the abdominal cavity out and creating more space in the lungs, and then as we exhale the diaphragm relaxes upwards, compressing the air, allowing it to be released. Abdominal breathing brings larger amounts of air into the body, increasing the oxygen supply throughout the body which reinvigorates energy levels and focus. Perhaps most importantly however, deep, abdominal breathing signals to our nervous system that we are calm, safe and relaxed. The opposite of the stress response.3Farhi, D. (2003). The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work. Henry Holt & Company Inc.
Our breath is the most accessible resource we have to quickly and simply change the way we feel. By taking a few deep, conscious abdominal breaths you can calm an anxious mind, improve your clarity, and re-energise the body.