By S.D. Shanti, PhD. Originally published in 2001 in HealthAndAge.com; updated and revised March 2020
Breathing. It is something you have been doing since you were born and do without a second thought. The interesting thing about breathing is that it is automatic and at the same time, partially within your control.
Proper breathing offers you many health benefits. Awareness and modification of your breath is an effective tool for managing negative motions such as fear and worry.
No matter where you are, or in whatever kind of situation you are in, your breath can serve as an anchor to still your mind when it wants to race in the direction of unwanted thoughts.
Become Aware of Your Breathing
The first step in using your breath as a tool to help manage your emotions, is to pause and reflect on your breath. Do you generally take slow deep breaths? Or do you tend to breathe in a shallow way?
From this initial awareness, you can move on to observing which parts of your body you are using as you breathe. Are you breathing in a way that your belly actively expands and contracts with each breath?
Next, notice how your breathing pattern changes in response to various situations around you. How is your breathing pattern connected to your thoughts?
Note your answers to these questions as you continue to read this article, and see what might be applicable to your situation.
What Goes on When You Breathe?
Breath and the act of breathing are the basis of life. That is how we get the oxygen we need for our body to survive, and that is also how we eliminate carbon dioxide.
What is Proper Breathing?
You are breathing at your best when the exchange of gasses is occurring to your fullest extent. Proper breathing is also characterized by slow, steady and deep breaths. It is the kind of breathing you do when you are asleep, and involves the diaphragm, a major muscle that sits below the lungs and above the abdomen.
You can tell if you are using your diaphragm fully by looking at what happens as you breathe. Is your belly gently moving in and out as you inhale and exhale? If so, it is likely that you are breathing properly.
What is Improper Breathing?
Improper or inefficient breathing is generally characterized by a shallow pattern that involves the upper part of the chest and shoulders rather than the abdomen and diaphragm. So instead of the abdomen moving, the shoulders and upper chest are more active. In addition, this kind of breathing can be irregular and fast.
Take a look at how you breathe. If you find that you are using your shoulders more than your abdomen, it is likely that you are not breathing as fully as you can.
Why is Proper Breathing Essential to Wellbeing?
When a person does not breathe properly, they are not exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide efficiently. As a result, people with poor breathing could feel tired.
Additionally, poor breathing patterns are associated with anxiety, panic and worries. While poor breathing is not a cause of anxiety, the two are intimately connected with one another.
When a person feels anxious, they may begin to breathe faster than usual without even realizing it. The fast breathing can serves as a signal to the individual that things are not going well. As a result, this may make a person feel even more worried or scared; and this can lead them to keep breathing faster and taking shallow breaths.
Additionally, there is the very real possibility that rapid shallow breathing brings less oxygen to the lungs, making a person feel worse. This serves as a further signal that something is wrong.
In such situations, if a person slows down their breathing at the first sign of anxiety, they will have more control over their negative feelings.
When Can Deep Breathing Help You Cope Better?
Deep breathing is a tool that you always have on hand. It can help you be at your best, no matter what the situation.
Here are some examples that show how deep and steady breathing can be useful when:
- Finding yourself feeling anxious or worried – even when you cannot clearly identify the cause of your worry;
- Dealing with cravings – such as for a particular food item, or for a cigarette;
- Discussing important matters with a family member, with whom you have a history of conflict;
- Being assertive and standing up for what you want – be it at home, work or in any other setting;
- Dealing with invasive medical procedures such as having blood drawn, getting scoped or having an eye exam;
- Awaiting news such as lab test results.
Barriers to Proper Breathing
Some people may have a medical problem that prevents them from expanding their abdomen and extending their diaphragm fully. If you have such difficulties, speak with your health care provider, and see what they can advise you.
Many times, even if a person has difficulty with abdominal or belly breathing, chances are there is still room for improvement. For instance, you can learn to be aware of the connection between your breathing patterns and your emotions, and consciously do belly breathing to regulate your breathing pattern when feeling tense.
If you do not have a medical problem, but nevertheless find yourself having difficulty breathing to your fullest capacity, try the following:
Empty your lungs as much as you can, and then take deep breaths. As you breathe out, exhale as fully as possible. Then, focus on your abdomen and push it out, expanding it slowly while you are breathing in.
Some people may be reluctant to breathe fully with their belly, not because of medical reasons, but because they think it makes them look fat. They think a relaxed abdomen is unattractive, and hold in their abdominal muscles tightly. Similarly, tight clothing such as control top pantyhose or undergarments can block your ability to breathe fully.
Remember that fashion does not always dictate what is best for our health. If you choose to keep wearing tight garments, give yourself periods of time during the day when you can enjoy deep and full breathing, without being restricted by tight clothes.
Attend to Your Posture
If you spend long hours at a desk hunched over a key board, it is possible that you are curving your body in a way that prevents you from breathing fully.
As you work on increasing your frequency and technique of deep breathing, be sure to attend to your posture.
Make the necessary corrections if needed, so that you return to a correct position. If you are not sure about your posture while you work, or if you have a tendency to start out straight, but then slump forward the longer you sit at your desk, here are a couple of ways that can help you return to a more ideal posture.
You can observe yourself in a mirror or window pane periodically to make sure that you are on track. You can also use your capacity for self-awareness to observe your posture periodically. When you work long hours, you may consider setting a timer to assist you in checking you posture – for instance, once an hour.
If there are people around you with whom you feel comfortable, you can ask them to periodically take photos of you so you can track how your posture changes over the course of the day, as well as get specific details about what exactly you may need to correct it.
Practice Makes Perfect
Your ability to breathe deeply and regularly can be enhanced through regular practice.
Set aside five to ten minutes a day and practice. Some people find it best to practice in the morning, before starting their day. Others find this more useful as a way to relax after a long day.
Try sitting in a comfortable chair as you practice. Alternatively, you can also lie on your back – on the bed or floor – with your arms and legs comfortably extended.
If you fall asleep while practicing, it is likely that you are tired and need the sleep. Get some rest and practice later when you feeling more awake.
To practice on a regular basis, it is helpful to schedule a specific time of day. You can write it in your calendar or daily planner and set up a “deep breathing appointment.” By putting it into your daily schedule, you are more likely to successfully practice.
Remember, the more often you practice deep regular belly breathing, the better you will become at it; and you can more readily go into a deep and slow breathing pattern when you are responding to difficult situations.
Variations on Practice
You can count your breath in cycles of four if you like. You may find it helpful in terms of keeping a steady rhythm. Upon inhaling each breath, you can number them, “one…two…three…four…” and then return to one, and start over again.
Some people find it helpful to rest the palm of their hand on their abdomen as they are practicing breathing. This is yet another way to draw your attention to your breathing, and not let your mind wander.
Watching your hand rise and fall on your belly gives you an indication of how much you are moving your abdominal muscles. You can also place your other hand on your chest, if you wish to highlight the contrast between deep breathing and shallow breathing.
Breathe Deeply and Reap the Benefits
With regular practice, two things will happen:
- Your overall level of reactivity to difficult and worrisome situations will be reduced. Fewer things will bother you, so you will have less reason to feel tense or anxious.
- With practice, you can learn to train yourself to immediately invoke a state of relaxation. You can think of it as a tool that you can use as needed in difficult situations.
Please remember that the above information is educational. If you are experiencing difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, please contact your physician or other healthcare provider as soon as possible.