On average, we breathe in and out 22,000 times a day. These breaths can activate the brain’s networks, affect the nervous system, help treat chronic pain, relieve muscle tension and improve blood flow. Breathing patterns can indicate when something isn’t right in our bodies and can be used as a tool to ease physical and mental stress—feelings we’ve endured plenty of over the past two-plus years.
“The way we breathe has a direct relationship with mood, anxiety, stress regulation, memory, attention, focus and body awareness,” says Dr. Monica Vermani, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and author of A Deeper Wellness. “Breathing deeply has a positive effect, and shallow breathing has just the opposite.”
While it might be instinctual, many of us could learn how to breathe better. “As children, we’re born with a proper belly breath,” says Vermani, referring to breathing with your diaphragm, the muscle that sits just below the lungs, and extending the stomach on each inhale. “As we grow up, we get caught up in the hustle and bustle, and brain activity gets to us physiologically. We go from a belly breath to a short and shallow breath,” she says. (Our tendency to suck in our stomachs doesn’t help with this, either.)
Shallow, or apical, breathing happens when you use the muscles around your shoulders and neck to expand and contract the lungs. “If you are using your secondary breathing muscles to breathe, which people tend to do, you are doing thousands of extra contractions a day. You are giving yourself a lot of extra stress,” says Kyle Reteff, a registered massage therapist who’s also trained in yoga, reiki and acupuncture. Shallow breathing can also reduce focus, and cause irritability, muscle tension and even heart palpitations. Reteff often sees clients with tight neck, shoulder and upper back muscles; he can tell apical breathing is a cause.
The good news is that we can retrain our breathing habits. Breath work is a tool used by psychologists like Vermani as well as physiotherapists and movement coaches to treat people dealing with stress and anxiety. It can also give you a boost of energy or help you wind down before going to sleep.
Reteff is part of the team at Othership, a wellness studio in Toronto that launched as a breathing-exercise app. Guided exercises are set to music and take users through a series of breathing patterns— like a workout for your diaphragm.
Sachi O’Hoski, a physiotherapist who specializes in pulmonary rehabilitation at Toronto’s West Park Healthcare Centre, works with patients dealing with chronic lung disease and COVID-19. She says everyone could use a little breathing rehab. “People who have COPD [a type of chronic lung disease] tend to get really hyperinflated lungs,” she says, so exercises for these patients focus on getting as much air out on the exhale as possible. “But even for the average person, if you’re really emptying your lungs completely, it allows you to take a full breath.”
She advises doing diaphragmatic breathing once or twice a day until “you start to do it without thinking about it.”
Three lung exercises to boost your breath
Lying on the floor, place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Breathe in slowly, using your diaphragm—you should feel your stomach expand. Exhale slowly as your stomach contracts. Your chest should not move during this exercise. Vermani takes six diaphragmatic breaths upon waking each day and six again before going to sleep.
Used in pulmonary rehab, this exercise involves diaphragmatic breathing on the inhale through your nose, then pursing your lips and exhaling slowly through your mouth. This keeps your airway open a bit longer than normal. “It helps with gas exchange: You get more carbon dioxide out, which can improve your ability to take in oxygen,” says O’Hoski.
U.S. Navy SEALs use this technique to cope with intense stress, because it distracts the mind and eases stress on the nervous system and body. Try it before your next important meeting: Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale slowly for four counts, and then pause for another four counts.
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