Are you breathing properly?
It goes without saying that breathing is pretty important for survival. Why do we breathe? Because breathing is what allows oxygen to enter the body and removes waste products like carbon dioxide. Every single tiny cell in your body needs oxygen to survive. Digesting food, moving your muscles, or even being able to think requires oxygen. Fortunately breathing is an automatic function within us that doesn’t require much thought. We do it when we sleep, when we’re awake and the brain is constantly sending messages to the muscles involved in breathing to adjust our breathing rates depending on what we’re doing at the time.
At rest, breathing out is mostly a passive process. The muscles we use to breathe in relax and our lungs push air out. We’re often not conscious of our breathing at rest because it is comfortable and requires very little effort. When we exercise or increase our activity levels, the body needs oxygen more quickly so our breathing rate increases. Breathing out becomes a less passive process as we now have to recruit more abdominal muscles to help us exhale quick enough to keep up with the oxygen demand in the body.
The diaphragm is the main muscle we use during breathing. It is a dome shaped muscle that sits just below the lungs and continuously contracts and relaxes as we breathe in and out.
When we breathe in, the muscle contracts and the dome-like shape of the muscle flattens out. This creates a vacuum effect which pulls air into the lungs. When we breathe out, the muscle relaxes back into its dome shape again and pushes air back out of the lungs.
Using the diaphragm properly when we breathe has lots of health benefits. It helps to lower blood pressure, improves digestion and helps to reduce stress and anxiety levels (which is why people who are having panic attacks are told to take deep breaths to calm down).
Lots of us live with high stress levels (even more so now given the current Covid-19 crisis). High stress levels leads to high levels of cortisol (our stress hormone) circulating in our blood stream. Our rib cage and breathing mechanics suffer. When we are stressed, we tend to breathe more shallowly so we don’t use the diaphragm properly and we miss out on all the great benefits of diaphragm breathing, plus we use far too much energy keeping the body functioning properly which means further down the line, this can lead to chronic fatigue and various musculoskeletal aches and pains.
Diaphragmatic breathing exercise
The good news is that the diaphragm is a muscle, and therefore is capable of being strengthened. Abdominal breathing is the best way to do this. It involves inhaling deeply and slowly through the nose so that that the lungs fill with air as your belly expands.
Learning to improve diaphragm function is easy enough with this very simple exercise:
(You can practice this sitting or lying down, whichever is more comfortable for you). Your goal is to breathe into your belly and not your chest.
Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen. You can choose to close your eyes if you wish.
Take a deep breath in. Visualise breathing into your belly. Focus your breath on inflating your abdomen. You’ll be able to feel whether this is happening by how much you can feel your abdomen pushing into your hand resting on your belly. The hand on your chest should hardly be moving at all when you breathe in.
If you can feel your belly inflating when you breathe in, you have successfully recruited your diaphragm.
Practice taking a few deep breaths like this for a couple of minutes every day. Notice how it makes you feel. Does it calm your mind? Does it make your tummy gurgle? (This is a good sign – it means your diaphragm is helping your digestion). Do you feel more relaxed?
The current Covid-19 crisis has caused many of us to change the way we currently live our day to day lives and stress levels will be much higher than normal as we face these uncertain times. Learning how to cope with these stresses is hard but sometimes it just takes the smallest of steps to make a difference. So I encourage you to take a few minutes out of your day to try this breathing exercise.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Amongst everything that is going on, please remember to look after yourself, stay safe and support one another.