Breathing is one of the most basic and fundamental functions of the human body, yet, a lot of us seem to do it all wrong. We don’t seem to worry about our breathing at all, until our breathing becomes abnormal. What we don’t understand is how important our breaths are to our physical and mental wellbeing.
How do we breathe?
When we breathe, our diaphragm (primary breathing muscle) contracts to allow the lungs to expand within our chest cavity. The muscles in between each rib (intercostal muscles) help expand the chest wall outwards to allow for maximum space within our thorax for our lungs to expand and fill with air.
Air enters our lungs via our mouth or nose. Breathing through your nose filters the air and cleans it so it is ready to use once it enters our lungs. Air that enters through the mouth, does not go through a filtration process and it can actually harm our bodies, leading to an increased risk for chronic health conditions.
What effect does breathing have on our body?
Have you ever noticed that the way you breathe changes depending on your state of mind and how you feel? That is because our mental state has a large effect on our physical state. When you are happy, the corners of your mouth turn upwards to smile and when you are sad they turn downwards, to frown.
The same relationship is present with breathing. When we are feeling calm and safe, your breathing is deep and slow. Conversely, in stressful situations, we tend to breathe shorter and faster.
That is because we are under the influence of our nervous systems. Our parasympathetic nervous system, which produces a relaxing effect, can be stimulated by slow, deep breathing. Our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s response to stress (flight or fight response), can induce short, sharp, shallow breathing, which is an indication that we are stressed.
Breathing not only affects our mind, it has an influence over your body too. It has been confirmed in studies that the way we breathe affects our nervous system, hormone production, fight-flight response, stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure.
How to practice proper breathing
Given that proper breathing can have so many positive effects to our well-being, it would be sensible to make sure we are practicing it every day.
An easy way to practice proper breathing daily is to start with brief periods of conscious, quiet breathing, several times a day. The best time to practice this would be when you have a spare 5-10 minutes to switch off from everything and relax.
More breathing techniques include:
Following Your Breath
Simply observe your respiratory movements. Be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. Focus on the sensations you feel as air passes through your nose and throat. When you notice your thoughts drift, redirect your attention to your breath.
Breathe “through your stomach” as much as possible. Start by lying on your back and placing your hands on your belly. Inflate your belly by inhaling to fill it with air, pushing your hands up toward the ceiling with your belly. When exhaling, first empty your stomach then your chest until there is no air left in your abdomen. Repeat.
At the end of each inhalation, mentally count “1,2,3” whilst holding the air before exhaling. This is often recommended for anxious people to calm their anxiety because it induces a beneficial slowing of the breathing rate.
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