Breathing. Typically, we might go days without giving it a passing thought. However, in the midst of COVID – 19 and the added stress that goes with it, we just might be thinking about this automatic process a bit more. You might worry that your shortness of breath could be a sign that you have been infected. Or, you might be trying to adapt to breathing with a mask (and not fog up your glasses to boot). Perhaps, you are deliberately focusing on your breath to quiet your mind during a sleepless night. In a time when there is a great deal of talk about how this vital function can be severely disrupted but also a wealth of knowledge about how we can gain great benefit by optimizing it, it’s worth a pause to focus on the breath.
Benefits of Deep Breathing
For something so simple, deep breathing has a number of significant benefits:
- lower blood pressure and heart rate
- less stress, more calm, and improved immune function
- greater energy and better tolerance of exercise
- improved digestion and detoxification
- more efficient breathing
Deep breathing is also called diaphragmatic breathing, as you are using the diaphragm muscle to breath efficiently. During a mindfulness training, the instructor used the term “belly breathing” instead. We were told to watch a young child breathe and notice how the belly rises and falls. I didn’t happen to have a chubby tyke in a diaper at that time in my life, but what a great visualization. In contrast, adults are often described as “chest breathers,” as the chest is the part of the body that moves up and down. If we can revert back to a practice of belly breathing, however, we can stimulate something called the vagus nerve, which runs from the neck to the abdomen and connects most of the body’s major organs. Why would one want to stimulate the vagus nerve? Of most importance is that it can halt the stress response in our bodies, and doing that, leads to better immune functioning, which we could undoubtedly say we all need right now and any time.
Here are the basic steps of belly breathing:
- Sit or lie in a comfortable position.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Breathe in slowly through your nostrils so that the hand on your stomach rises, while the one on your chest remains relatively still.
- Exhale slowly through pursed lips, feeling your stomach fall and your chest remaining relatively still.
Some individuals practicing deep breathing may inadvertently over-breathe or hyperventilate. This causes a low level of carbon dioxide in the blood. We tend to think of carbon dioxide as a waste product, but we need to maintain a certain amount of it in our blood. Slowing down breathing and using the nose, rather than the mouth, are helpful.
As with any lifestyle change, incorporating belly breathing into your daily routine can take a little time and practice.
- Find a peaceful, comfortable place you can practice each day.
- Try to practice once or twice a day at the same time(s).
- Build up to 10-20 minute practice sessions.
- When your mind starts to rehash the day’s events or prepare for what’s next, return to a focus on the breath or the sounds around you.
- If you are having difficulty finding time to practice, try conducive times that are already built into your routine: when you are going to sleep, waking up, driving, waiting, or bathing. Stacking the practice onto a habit that is already well-established can reduce the time needed to adopt a new habit.
- Use reminders (post-it note, phone).
- Be kind to yourself and don’t worry that you are not doing it exactly right or doing it enough.
It’s strange to think that so many people may be improperly doing something so innate and fundamental to our existence. Dr. Andrew Weil said it well, “Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health. If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. There is no single more powerful – or more simple – daily practice to further your health and wellbeing than breathwork.” If you are not already practicing some sort of breathwork, I hope that you might take the time to explore it and experience its numerous benefits for yourself.
Health coach, Kasi Shogren
EPIC Functional Medicine