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How to breathe properly and healthily…
Do you think you breathe properly? Not a question you are likely to have heard before, though astonishingly, a vast amount of us have actually been breathing incorrectly for some time now. When we are born we instinctively know how to breathe and as such, without trying at all, we breathe naturally and correctly, as a baby and through most of early childhood. As we grow up, however, believe it or not, we can develop improper breathing, breathing that is actually causing us harm.
Up until fairly recently, I would have answered that same question with ease, ‘Of course I breathe properly! There’s only one way to breathe.’ That answer, however, was incorrect, just like my breathing. I knew one thing about breathing at the time, which was that we should breathe in from our diaphragm first, before the lungs. Though I had heard this advice and tried it a few times, I didn’t adopt the technique, as I saw no reason to. As far as I had heard, or been told, the only benefit of that way of breathing was deeper breaths and a more powerful voice, neither of which I had much use of. I could already breathe deep enough with my lungs alone and saw no use in making my voice more powerful. What I was unaware of at the time, were numerous other harms that my way of breathing was causing me, and that breathing correctly actually had vast health benefits.
I became aware of these things after watching one of my suggested videos on Youtube, a TED Talk by Belisa Vranich, called How to Breathe. I was what she calls, a Vertical Breather, in that I would breathe, in a sort of up and down motion, getting a little taller on a big inhale, and shortening back down on the exhale, rather than the natural expanding motion of a true breath. I was using only the top half of my lungs to inhale and most importantly, lifting myself up, tensing my neck and shoulders, with every breath. According to Vranich, I was one of the 9 out of 10 people that breathe this way, that breath improperly. Meaning an overwhelming majority of us breathe incorrectly and unhealthily, thousands of times a day. With oxygen being such a vital element to our health, we can begin to imagine the damage this is causing us. The downsides, as she explains in her talk, are both physical and mental. So let’s start with the mental side of things.
‘Bad breathing’ can actually increase levels of stress and anxiety through something called the vagus nerve. Our brains and body have a two-way relationship. Think about how you breathe when you are scared, stressed or worried. Think about what you do with your body when you are stressed. Perhaps you tense your shoulders? Maybe clench your jaw? And your breathing becomes shallow and fast. So now this two-way relationship comes into play. If we continuously tense our shoulders with every breath, we trigger stress in the brain, because of the association the brain has with tense shoulders and any other form of bad breathing. And then there’s the Vagus Nerve. It runs from the base of the brain to the rest of our body, picking up signals that tell our brains how to feel. When we breathe improperly, or as Vranich puts it, vertically, we are giving out signals of stress to the brain, picked up and delivered by the vagus nerve. This direct connection plays a big part, not just in stress levels but in feelings of anxiety; that nervous feeling of butterflies in our stomachs is affected by this nerve, which is in turn affected by our brains.
I will not attempt to explain the science behind it, I don’t understand it at all. What I do know, is that science, as well as experience, suggest that healthy breathing can improve our physical health as well. Breathing healthily can improve sleep, our digestion, our memory, our immune system and energy levels. Correcting our breath will also improve posture, lower acidity and decrease the feelings I spoke about previously, anxiety for example. Breathing healthily improves both our physical and mental health, and it is easy and simple to practice every day.
To breathe correctly, firstly relax. Let go of your stomach and release your shoulders. We then begin by breathing in deeply and slowly from the diaphragm, the muscle that lies below our ribs. As the diaphragm expands, so too does our stomach, allowing us to really open up the lower part of our lungs. When it feels right (maybe after 2 or 3 seconds) begin to expand your lungs with breath, as if they were filling from the bottom to the top. As your lungs expand your stomach should begin to flatten back out. Try to use only your diaphragm and rib muscles. Your shoulders and neck will be relaxed. If they’re not, you will feel them relax as you slowly let go of the breath and exhale. It’s good to aim for an inhale of around 6 seconds before a slight hold of the breath, then, exhale naturally by simply letting the breath go, all the way out, without forcing it. We can use this as a calming technique or de-stressor, but to truly benefit, we need to practise with each breath. Before long our breath will become natural again.
Since I have prioritised breathing properly in my life, I have noticed decreased levels of both stress and anxiety. I have noticed improvements in my posture, I get fewer stomach aches, feel more awake and have more energy each day. If I begin to feel anxious or stressed the first thing I do now is to make sure I’m breathing properly. Proper, deep breathing helps to relax me almost immediately, I un-tense, drop my shoulders and breathe. When we breathe this way our physical state is no longer sending messages of stress and fear to the brain, it sends a physical message of peace instead and the brain responds in kind, with peace.
There are some links below that you can follow to find out more about the benefits of healthy breathing and how to breathe properly.
If you know someone who could benefit from better breathing, then please share this post with them and why not check out our Healthy Habits page for more ways to make today a healthy one.
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