If breath is life, it’s also quality of life
posted: May 13, 2021.
Mindful breathing for health and vitality
Breathing is the only automatic nervous system function that we can directly control. While we can’t regulate our heart rate, digestion, or thyroid just by willing it so, we can hold our breath or breathe deliberately at any cadence we choose.
Some evidence shows that by controlling our breathing, we positively affect other automatic nervous system functions and our emotional health and well-being. So, what is controlled breathing, and when can you use it to heal your body, mind, and spirit?
The difference between relaxed and forced breathing
Relaxed breathing happens when the body and mind are in repose. It’s how we breathe when we sleep and are in a state of ease and contentment. Relaxed breathing uses the diaphragm to pull air in like a syringe. The diaphragm is a broad muscle that separates our lungs from our other organs creating an airtight seal between the lung cavity and the gut cavity. This method of breathing is efficient and requires little effort.
Forced breathing is a reaction that happens when we’re thrust into a stressful situation – whether psychological, emotional, or physical. Stress on any one of these states will create a cascade effect until you experience stress on all levels. Forced breathing uses a multitude of small muscles in the upper back, neck, and shoulders to lift the ribcage allowing for an excessive amount of air beyond the capacity of relaxed diaphragm breathing. These muscles can work independently of the diaphragm, too, causing rapid, shallowing breath. This breathing method is exhausting and creates physical rigidity and tension throughout the entire upper back, neck, and shoulders.
How you’re breathing now might be accelerating health problems
People who experience frequent anxiety, including “A-type” personalities, often utilize their forced breathing almost exclusively – especially when in the heat of a stressful situation. The consistent lack of connection with the diaphragm severely hampers the body’s ability to oxygenate effectively. This state prolongs the body’s sympathetic (activating) alert system, increasing and stoking continued anxiety. Living in a state of constant stress and anxiety has broad ramifications on physical and mental health.
Breathing for better health
Maintaining a state of being where you can keep your breathing consistent and rhythmic, despite circumstances and stressors will put you in control of your physical and emotional health. Consistent, relaxed breathing allows us to regulate our movements, hormones, emotions, and oxygen levels. It reduces states of anxiety.
Aside from proper hydration, relaxed breathing is the most essential aspect when receiving therapy of any kind – including massage therapy or when doing foam rolling or stretch therapy – allowing those modalities to be most effective at healing body and spirit.
Types of controlled breathing techniques for optimal health
The main idea to keep in mind when consciously breathing is:
Inhale = your heart rate increasingExhale = your heart rate slowing down
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measurement of the variability between heartbeats and is directly influenced by inhaling and exhaling. This is also a biomarker for how balanced the two modes of the nervous system are – the sympathetic (activating) and parasympathetic (deactivating) functions. Breathwork can improve your HRV scores.
A double inhale and long exhale is like a physiological sigh. It calms the body quickly.
A “fire breath” or Wim Hof method is controlled and intentional hyperventilation. It heightens the body’s functions with adrenaline. Wim Hof’s ability to control his autonomic nervous system through breathing was a groundbreaking study in breathwork. The Wim Hof method incorporates a series of inhales and exhales, followed by a final exhale and breath-hold, completed with a huge inhale and another hold. This method is precise and should be done according to protocols.
When to focus on your breathing
You can go from distracted to alert, or stressed to calm, all through conscious control of your breathing. Quick breaths increase adrenaline in the body. Longer breaths calm an overstimulated mind and body. Breathwork can help you keep your sanity when stress triggers your flight or fight response – allowing you space and clarity needed to counteract destructive emotional reactions – which has a significant impact on how you experience moving through your day-to-day routines. Your mind and body will thank you for pausing to take those 10 deep breaths your mother always told you to take.