The art of breathing is both innately simple and infinitely complex.
Breathing is critical function that both sparks and ends life. Inhaling and exhaling through our lives without requiring that we give it too much of our attention.
Yet there is so much more to the breath.
Tune into the breath of someone having a carefree day, and the breath is likely to be flowing freely.
Tune into the breath of someone having a day of it, or in the grips of an intense emotion such as anger, and the breath is likely to be uneasy.
If the mind and/or the body is struggling the breath will struggle but, if the mind and the body is at ease, the breath will be at ease too. The three are intimately connected.
So, does this mean that we can use the breath as a sort of barometer?
Does it also mean that if we influence the breath, we can in turn influence the mind and the body?
Yes, I think we absolutely can…
How Breathing Works
Let’s take a very simplistic look at the infinitely complex process of how breathing works…
The principle work of the breath is to bring in nourishing and energising oxygen, required by every cell in our body, and to remove carbon dioxide, a waste product of the respiratory process.
How does it know how much oxygen we have, and need, and how much carbon dioxide to get rid of?
This is where the Medulla Oblongata comes in.
Located in the brain stem, the medulla oblongata is responsible for regulating many important and involuntary functions of the autonomic nervous system. These include cardiac and respiratory functions.
It is able to detect the exact amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels present within our system and works to regulate them.
If we are running for a bus it will detect we need more energy, instruct our breath to up the pace and our hearts to pump faster to distribute it where it’s needed.
Once we are settled on the bus, it will signal our respiratory and cardiovascular systems to take their foot off the gas.
The Mechanics of Breathing
The act of breathing utilises a dome-like muscle called the diaphragm – the main muscle associated with breathing.
On a breath in:
Your diaphragm contracts and moves down.
Your stomach and lower back expand and relax to allow this to happen.
The space in your chest cavity increases, into which the lungs expand.
As your lungs expand, air is sucked in through your nose or mouth and makes its way into your lungs.
This air goes through branches in your lungs to fill up the alveoli, or air sacs.
Oxygen goes through the walls of the alveoli and into the capillaries, where the oxygen enters the red blood cells in each blood vessel.
The blood carries the oxygen to the heart.
The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to every cell in the body.
On a breath out:
As each red blood cell empties its load of oxygen, it picks up carbon dioxide from the cells and makes its way back to the lungs.
The carbon dioxide is carried by the red blood cells back to alveoli, ready to be expelled from the body when you breathe out.
To exhale your diaphragm relaxes and moves up.
Your stomach and lower back retract and contract slightly to enable this to happen.
The space in your chest cavity decreases. As the space gets smaller, air is forced out of your lungs through your nose or mouth.
Sounds simple enough doesn’t it?
If only we, and life, didn’t get in the way!
We were all born knowing how to breathe and our medulla oblongata saying “we’ve got this”.
If you have ever watched a baby, or a puppy breathe, you will have seen them unashamedly breathe in and out of the belly.
But somewhere along the way we are likely to have formed different breathing patterns and not for the better.
Factors such as prolonged sitting, posture, and vanity can result in the muscles associated with breathing being held too tight – getting in the way of the respiratory system doing its job effectively.
Then there are the held in emotions, such as girls suppressing anger and boys the tears, which can again result in irregular breathing patterns.
Not to mention good old stress that can see us puffing and panting our way through life at an erratic rate of knots.
Whatever the underlying reason, breathing patterns can form that result in:
Ineffective inhaling limiting the volume of oxygen coming in.
Ineffective exhaling not emptying the lungs fully or the body of carbon dioxide.
When the medulla oblongata detects that there is too much carbon dioxide or not enough oxygen in the body, it will signal the body to take another breath to try and balance this out.
This can lead to a cycle of the body not exhaling completely or inhaling fully.
This phenomenon is known as chest breathing or shallow breathing. It is a breathing pattern that is robbing many people today of their optimal cell functioning and vitality.
5 signs you may not be breathing right
Shallow breathing patterns can creep up on us and be so subtle that we don’t notice it has become the new norm.
Whilst there can be a number of factors at play, ineffective breathing interferes with the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body and can come with a number of symptoms.
If you have concerns or are struggling with your breathing in anyway, I would of course recommend you seek the support and guidance of a health professional.
If you are simply curious or have minor concerns, let’s take a look at what might happen if the approximately 20,000 breaths we take each day are limited in some way?
1. Your muscles feel tight
Shallow breathing relies on the muscles of the neck, shoulders and chest working hard to support respiration.
A 2014 study in Respiratory Care linked patients with neck pain with poor pulmonary function.
Muscular and skeletal issues aside, if you experience tightness or discomfort in the shoulders and neck, your breathing patterns may be the culprit.
2. You have brain fog
The brain is believed to utilise about 20% of our intake of oxygen.
If it doesn’t get what it needs, the brain may slow down and become unfocussed, foggy even.
As the brain is responsible for regulating a number of functions in the body, it is not just the mind that will be impacted.
3. You feel stressed
The breath speeds up and shallows in response to stress – preparing us to either run from danger or to face it. Part of the good old fight and flight mechanism.
Cast your mind back to when you last experienced a jump-scare - perhaps when watching a gripping thriller or a horror movie. You likely gasped or held your breath. Or felt your heart pumping in your chest to distribute your quickening breath.
The breath responds to threats, but is also an indicator as to whether danger may be present.
When the breath is heightened, a signal makes it way to the amygdala, part of the brain which is best known for its role as the alarm system for the stress response. Once the amygdala alarm is triggered - hey presto your fight and flight response is off and running.
Whilst the breath is only one indicator it is a key one. So much so that a study by the Stanford University in of California, published in Science, identified 175 brain cells that continuously spy on the breath and will alter our physical and emotional state accordingly.
4. You feel nervous or anxious
There can of course be many reasons for feeling nervous and anxious, and I am certainly not intending to trivialise what can be a debilitating condition.
Whatever the underlying causes, an anxious body and mind is not a relaxed body and mind.
When anxiety is present tension will also be present and the breath short and fast.
The same can happen in reverse. Elevated breathing and tightness in the upper chest muscles can mimic stress, with feelings of nervousness and anxiety a bi-product.
It may be an interesting question to ask yourself if you feel uneasy, “Is my breath limited because I am feeling anxious, or, am I feeling anxious because my breath is limited”?
5. You feel fatigued
Shallow breathing limits lung capacity and essentially robs us of one of the three types of fuel needed for energy and vitality – food, water, and oxygen.
Furthermore, when the body has to work harder to breathe, it makes sense that this requires more effort, more energy.
Add these two together and it can be one recipe for fatigue.
6. You can’t sleep
Isn’t it ironic that we may be feeling fatigued but can’t sleep?
That feeling of being ‘tired yet wired’ can be a result of stress hormones left buzzing around from the day, leaving both the body and mind exhausted but too alert to rest and sleep.
It makes sense when you think about it - when we are facing danger, we need to be able to bypass our call to sleep.
Useful if you are facing the proverbial sabre-toothed tiger. Not so useful if you are trying to get the 8 hours of sleep opportunity, we each need to support a healthy body and mind.
7. You may not be your best self
If stressed, anxious, tired, wired, lacking sleep and brain fog don’t amount to you being less than the ideal version of yourself, then there is more.
A study by staff from the University of Quebec and the University of Louvain, showed a direct link between emotions and breathing patterns. The study titled ‘Respiratory Feedback in the Generation of Emotion’ is included in the article change how you feel – change how you breathe.
The study involved two groups of volunteers: