Healthy Breathing

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Don’t neglect breath work

Breathing is fundamental to life, so much so that we usually aren’t aware of doing it at all.  Yet many experts say people are breathing “wrong” – too rapidly and too shallowly – and breathing wrong may be affecting our physical and mental health in myriad ways.

Healthy breathing, according to a recent article in the New York Times, should be no more than 12 – 20 breaths per minute.  Faster breathing is associated with fear and stress, coming after a “fight or flight” adrenaline surge.  In a dangerous situation, fast, shallow breaths enable us to respond better to the threat.  But if the shallow breathing continues after the danger is over it can become a habit, signaling stress to the body.  Anxiety and panic attacks are associated with rapid, shallow breathing, and therapists have found some people can overcome anxiety and panic without drugs, using basic meditation techniques and simply taking time to become aware of their breathing and consciously slowing it down.

Breathing exercises basically force you to become aware of the breath coming in and out of your lungs, and concentrate on the present moment.  Counting seconds or “beats” of breath helps you concentrate on it and may help to relax or energize. 

  • To relax, make sure your exhale is longer (some say twice as long) as your inhale.  Count to four on the inhale, hold for a count of four, then exhale for a count of eight.  The longer exhale is calming to the body, and a good strategy for any time you feel anxious or threatened.
  • Another variation has you count to four on the inhale, then hold for four, then exhale for four and then hold while exhaled for four more counts.  This “box breathing” is thought to enhance cognitive function, and help you remain alert and energized, rather than feeling either calmed or worried.
  • Ancient yoga practice recommends breathing through alternate nostrils.  Hold one nostril closed and breathe in for a count of four, then close the other one and breathe out for a count of four, alternating which nostril is used for inhale and which for exhale.  There is some evidence to support the idea that the right side is connected to the sympathetic system, and the left side to the calmer parasympathetic system, but at the very least, the exercise forces you to concentrate on your body and think in the moment, thus distracting your mind from its worries and fears.

Consciously slowing down your breathing helps you keep your mind “in the moment” and relaxes the body, signaling a period of rest and renewal.  Rapid, shallow breathing, on the other hand, can raise the heart rate and blood pressure, as well as the whole-body experience of stress.  Breathing exercises are also being used for people with chronic respiratory difficulties, and COVID.  Learning to breathe more deeply helps the lungs recover and exercising them fully strengthens the ability to breathe well.

For more information:

Breathing Techniques

The Science of Slow Breathing

Stress and Illness.