Breathing well changes everything
Breathwork and functional breathing offer each of us a powerful and immediately accessible tool for influencing our body and mind.
The world we find ourselves in is a challenging place for the brain and nervous system, and how we breathe reflects how our body is handling those challenges. The steady convergence of evidence from different disciplines such as medicine, sport science, neuroscience and psychology all agree that breathing works reciprocally with many bodily processes that help us to manage stress. Breathing happens unconsciously most of the time but is also something we can control consciously, meaning it is a useful gateway to influence our health and performance.
There seem to be two main approaches within breathwork including breathing for altered states of consciousness or emotional breakthrough (such as holotropic and rebirthing techniques based on hyperventilation), and functional breathing, which focuses on the biomechanics and biochemical aspects of breathing. Both have their place and are useful in a number of ways. My approach falls into the latter and aims to help you breathe well throughout your day to ensure your bodily system remains adaptive to the situations you encounter. You may be surprised at how good effective breathing feels and regulates your body and mind. You may also be surprised to learn that it is entirely possible to have dysfunctional breathing patters without being aware of them. If you do then you may be unknowingly contributing to your own stress levels simply by breathing.
Biomechanics of breathing
There are a number of muscles involved in breathing, with the most important one being the diaphragm. When stress impacts us over time it is often accompanied by a habit for muscular tension and postural adaptations that make freedom of movement for the diaphragm very difficult. When we become accustomed to living with stress, we develop blind spots for the gradual inefficiencies of our breathing. You may become accustomed to sighing, shallow/ light breathing, excessive yawning, mouth breathing, panicky breathing etc which are all signs that your breathing has negatively adapted to stress.
The consequences of stress are reflected in breathing patterns and some of the most common I see in my office are:
- breath holding
- shallow/ chest breathing with little diaphragm
- paradoxical breathing
- mouth breathing
- hyperventilation or breathing with excess rate or volume
- muscle tightness around the thoracic cage
- muscle tightness in the abdominal wall
- clavicular / shoulder breathing
All of these patterns affect volume and efficiency of breathing and the maintenance of emotional and nervous system dysregulation.
Good, effective breathing should be felt in the movement of the diaphragm, as well as within a gentle expansion of the thoracic (rib) cage and the abdomen. The lower three ribs should be felt moving outwards with the in breath to accommodate the expanding lungs and more subtly the expansion will be felt across the back if there is no excessive muscular tightness. The breath should be gentle, light, through the nose and inaudible. In an ideal world much of our breathing should be at a rate of 5-6 breaths per minute unless physically exerting ourselves.
The muscles of the shoulder and neck should be relaxed and rather than pulling air in through the nose, the air is also be gently drawn in by the movement of the diaphragm and muscles surrounding the rib cage.
Diaphragmatic breathing feels good, calming and effortless.
The short video below shows the movement of the diaphragm, lungs and rib cage during breathing. For many it is an eye opener to realise that movement is centred in the diaphragm (and therefore belly), on gentle rib movement and just how relaxed the shoulders are. Correct diaphragmatic breathing also helps to keep the lower back in motion and helps prevent back ache.
Biochemistry of Breathing
For many people, stress and poor breathing habits come hand in hand and maintain a cycle of sympathetic nervous system arousal, which in turn affects mood and negative thinking.
Breathing is regulated by receptors in the brainstem which monitor our blood for levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), PH and Oxygen (O2). The biggest trigger for breathing are levels of CO2, not oxygen. Increased breathing is triggered by far smaller increases of Co2 in the blood that for drops in O2.
This matters because when stressed or when we mouth breath habitually we increase our breathing rate. We are taking in more oxygen than we need and this is out hyperventilation reflex. Shallow breathing, mouth breathing, chest breathing, rapid anxiety breathing and panic breathing are all forms of hyperventilation. Even slight over-breathing due to stress or raised emotions can result in a steep drop in carbon dioxide, thus causing symptoms to worsen (King 1988).
Although we often think of CO2 as a byproduct of breathing that is exhaled it also performs some vitally important functions. Without it O2 cannot be released from hemoglobin in order to oxygenate our cells and tissue. This means that if we are in the habit of breathing too much in response to chronic stress or from mouth breathing then our CO2 levels drop and the brain and body become oxygen deprived.
The body then becomes stuck in a loop of over breathing. Hyperventilation triggers lowering of COs levels which prompts the brain to register danger and breathlessness and triggers more breathing. More breathing means less oxygen is delivered to where it is needed, meaning less energy, less stress adaptability (because the mitochondria are unable to create ATP, adenosine triphosphate) and we are prone to feeling more anxious, more fatigue, reduced cognitive function, brain fog and sleep difficulties. It also means that in the longer term we are more prone to inflammation, and illness.
The most effective way to improve our health, performance and resilience is to reduce the frequency and volume of our breath.
Many clients I work with are impressed at how effective breathwork is. By slowing the breath to 5-6 breaths per minute, by regulating the volume of air taken in and by using the using only the appropriate breathing muscles, the body mind system starts to rebalance. More importantly you are retraining the brain to tolerate of higher CO2 levels and to maintain homeostasis, which is our most fundamental basis of health.
What can breathwork help with?
Breathwork and breathing exercises along with other types of relaxation and mind-body training effectively regulate the brain and nervous system and in this process diminish many unwanted physical and emotional symptoms that are drive by an imbalance in our biochemistry. Problems that breathwork can help with include:
- Energy levels/ vitality
- Medically unexplained exhaustion and chronic fatigue
- Immune function
- digestive issues
How does it work in session?
During a session we will explore how you are currently breathing and the muscular patterns and habits that are part of your breathing repertoire.
- Familiarisation with your breathing muscles and what sensations accompany these during breathing
- Movement exercises to encourage movement of the thoracic cage or release of muscles preventing efficient breathing
- Exploration of inhaling and exhaling different volumes of air
- Assessment for over-breathing and Co2 intolerance
- mouth breathing vs nose breathing
- Different breathing pattern exercises
- Using breath holding techniques
Whats the aim of the process?
- To feel better and have more control over mood, energy levels and concentration
- To change unhelpful breathing patterns and breath efficiently
- To improve mental and physical performance
- To become conscious of your breathing habits as they naturally change according to lifestyle and stress
- To have a tool at your disposal that can profoundly change how you think and feel.
- To be clear about how and when to use different breathing exercises in your life to help manage stress, mental, physical and emotional patterns of reactivity.