Our breathing is our life force. It reflects how we feel, influences how we feel, and if it is disordered, it can contribute to physical and mental illness. These are the core functions of the breathing pattern:
- Aids circulation
- Regulates the brainwaves
- Regulates the emotions
- Informs the body of the (perceived) environment (whether it is threatening or safe)
- Influences (and is influenced by) the posture
- Influences our energy levels (not enough oxygen can result in lethargy and depression)
- Reflects how we feel (for example, a short, panicked breathing pattern is indicative of someone who feels unsafe in the world/doesn’t really want to be here)
- Influences our mental/emotional state (a weak breath or panicked breathing pattern reinforces to our nervous system the perception that the environment is threatening or unsafe, and the body and hormones will respond accordingly by remaining in a state of fight or flight, leaving us feeling (more) anxious and on ‘high alert’.
- Grounding and self-connection. A healthy, deep, calm breathing pattern helps to ground you in your body, reconnect you to your physical and emotional responses to people/places/things, and communicate to your nervous system that you are ‘safe’ in the world.
When I was 13 or 14, at the peak of my anxiety and depersonalization/derealization, I was diagnosed with a breathing disorder. This is when a person’s breathing pattern is dysfunctional and irregular, to the point where it starts to detrimentally affect the person’s moods, resilience, quality of life and general health. I was told that I was in a constant state of fight or flight and that my breathing reflected this.
The woman who diagnosed me (a breathing specialist – yes, they exist), explained that I had developed a long-term pattern of hyperventilation – meaning my breath was shallow (breathing from the upper chest rather than the diaphragm) and fast, as if always anticipating something bad was about to happen.
She explained that my poor breathing was both a cause and side-effect of my anxiety and fear-based thought patterns. A disordered breathing pattern usually develops due to a person being under acute stress and anxiety, or as a result of feeling unsafe and insecure in the world. Unfortunately, once a poor breathing pattern is adopted, it feeds the cycle of anxiety, depression and other mental/emotional disorders, as our breathing affects our brain, hormones and nervous system.
Because of my shallow breathing, I was experiencing something called ‘air hunger’, which is when a person feels as though no matter how hard they try to get a deep breath, they never feel satisfied, instead feeling as though they are slowly suffocating. When you see a person with this, you can see that the breath is way up high in their chest, and they look like they are gasping for air, as though drowning and trying to keep their head above water.
Along with my anxiety, nervousness and ‘spaced out’ feeling, my poor breathing also left me feeling tired and lethargic, with a poor appetite. The breathing pattern also helps to regulate the appetite, so people with irregular breathing often experience either a decrease in appetite, to the point where they don’t eat enough, or an increase, to the point where they eat too much (comfort eating).
I experienced cold sweats and had clammy hands due to poor circulation (obviously, our heart governs our circulation, and if there is a problem with our lungs, heart or breathing pattern, our circulation suffers). The woman who treated me assured me that she could provide me with a series of breathing exercises to do each day and that over time this would restore my breathing pattern and reduce my anxiety and other symptoms.
I felt so terrible that I wondered how something as simple as a few breathing exercises could possibly help me, but that was because I hadn’t come to understand what a huge role the breath plays in how we feel.
It was through her treatment process that I realised how the breath is both a reflection and cause of our mental state. My shallow breathing was a reflection of the fact that I felt unsafe and insecure in the world, as was always preparing for the worst. I was in fight or flight.
Symbolically, a short, fast breath is about not really wanting to be here and not wanting to inhale or ‘take in’ too much of the world. It is about feeling the need to limit how much of the world you consume in order to protect yourself. My air hunger (gasping for air) was also a reflection of my extreme fear – a physical manifestation of my feeling as though I was ‘drowning’ in life.
Once this breathing pattern became chronic, it only fueled and worsened my mental state, as it was effecting my brainwaves, hormones and circulation. It was feeding the cycle. It led me to develop poor posture (hunched shoulders, a closed chest) which makes normal breathing very difficult and again fuels the cycle.
My breathing specialist also measured the angle of the point where either side of my rib cage met (the point above the stomach, just below the sternum, that forms a sort of triangular shape), and said that the angle was too small, more like that of a child. This was because I was breathing from the upper chest and throat (hyperventilating), rather than the diaphragm. I wasn’t engaging the muscles that cause the rib cage to expand, so the angle had shrunk and closed in.
This is another example of how our posture and anatomy reflect how we feel emotionally, and also adopt positions to protect us. My rib cage had shrunk and ‘closed in’ as if to protect my heart (emotional centre) from perceived threats. After only a few weeks of employing the breathing techniques she suggested, this angle had increased significantly and had returned to the size that you would have expected someone of my age and size to have (I was 14 years old and 5’9″ at the time).
After applying the techniques that I was taught, I realised that a correct breathing pattern helps to ground us in our bodies, to help us feel calm, settled and secure, with level moods and improved confidence. Our breath is a reflection of our life force, and if we have a strong, deep and grounded breath, we are more likely to feel strong and grounded in life in general, and safe in our bodies.
The breathing specialist I saw was not an alternative healer or spiritualist of any kind. She was a qualified physiotherapist who had branched into focusing on the importance of breathing re-education specifically. Her techniques are scientifically based and are recognized and employed by mental health professionals when treating people with mental and/or mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Keep reading to learn the breathing techniques that helped me the most.
1. Breathing from the Diaphragm
If you aren’t used to breathing from the diaphragm, this can initially feel very foreign and uncomfortable and you might not even be capable of doing it – but stick with it, and you’ll get there.
Breathing from the diaphragm is about engaging the diaphragm muscles – the muscles located beneath the rib cage. It is important to engage these muscles as they are strong, and help to disperse the oxygen more efficiently to where it needs to go.
If you are prone to anxiety or depression, you likely breathe from the upper chest and throat and have a shallow breath. What you want to be doing is calming and deepening the breath. Take note of the following steps:
- Breathe slowly and deep into your stomach, letting your stomach expand as it fills with air. If you find this difficult, lay on your back and place a small object on your stomach. Try to let the object raise up with your stomach as you inhale, but let your breath do the work – you shouldn’t be ‘pushing’ it up.
- Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Your breath out should be longer than the breath in. Although you may feel as though you aren’t getting enough oxygen (air hunger), this is not the case. Air hunger is actually due to having too much oxygen in the lungs. A long breath out ensures you allow the oxygen to be converted to carbon dioxide, which will ease the sensation of air hunger.
- Try to do 20 diaphragm breaths, then relax and let yourself gasp for air and satisfy your air hunger if you need to.
- Relax your shoulders and upper body. Keep your shoulders down and back, and do your breathing exercises in a neutral seated position or laying down. Keep your chest wide and open (without tensing too much).
- Practise this at least twice a day.
- Become aware of your breathing at all times, so when you notice that your breath is shallow or panicked, stop, slow down, breathe out and relax your upper body. Breathe deep into the base of your stomach. This will help to calm your nerves and comfort you, as it breathes life and security into your stomach, which is where we typically feel the sensations that come with anxiety and fear.
- Take note of your emotional state and thought processes when you notice your breathing is weak. Compare this to how you feel after you have completed a session of diaphragm breathing.
- Measure the angle at the base of your sternum once a week and document it’s expansion.
- Allow yourself to sink into your body as you inhale and exhale, slow down and connect to all your physical sensations and emotions. This can feel relaxing, but at times it may feel uncomfortable if you are not used to ‘feeling’ yourself. When uncomfortable feelings or emotions arise, sit in them and let them pass. This is essential in grounding yourself in your body and reconnecting to how you feel.
2. Resetting the Posture
Bad breathing can lead to poor posture, and poor posture can lead to bad breathing. Keeping our entire body in structural alignment is essential to our health, but for now I will focus on exercises and postures that directly influence the breathing. If you are interested in general information on the importance of posture and stretching or want to learn how to ground yourself in your body, see my post titled STRETCHING FOR MENTAL HEALTH.
If you are anxious, depressed and fearful or suffer from low self-esteem, your posture likely reflects this. When we feel unsafe in the world, our body compensates by trying to protect us. Typically, the shoulders will hunch over and forward to shelter us and the chest will collapse and contract to protect the heart and emotional centre.
This collapsing of the chest area, of course, detrimentally affects respiratory function and will lead to or worsen a poor, shallow breathing pattern.
If you want to restore your breathing pattern to normal, it is essential that you strengthen and re-engage the stomach and chest muscles. This can be done as outlined above with diaphragm breathing, and also can be aided by physically opening up the chest area with chest-opening stretches.
- Sit in a neutral position, back straight with your shoulders down, back and relaxed. Bring your arms up and out to your side, so that your forearms are in a horizontal position. Now try to push your arms back behind you and thrust your chest out as you do so. You can use a yoga strap (like a large, stretchy rubber band) to add some extra resistance if you want to. This is literally opening the chest up and engaging the muscles that are instrumental in our breathing. This will help you to achieve a deeper, steadier breath that reaches deep into the base of your lungs and stomach.
- Back bends. Begin by lying on your back, then use your arms and legs to push your stomach and chest up into the air, forming a bridge shape. Make sure you keep breathing, and hold this position for 30 seconds (if you can). Release, lay down on your back again, relax your muscles, and repeat this process 3 times. Do this gently and don’t push yourself too hard – you don’t want to strain your back.
- Blow up balloons. It sounds silly, I know, but it is actually excellent for strengthening your lungs and breath in general, and for lengthening the breath out. Sitting in a neutral position, take a 3-second breath in, then breathe out as long, steady and strong as you can, doing your best to fill the balloon with air. It shouldn’t be a ‘boom and bust’ short, sharp breath out. It should be slow and steady. Do this as many times as you like, but take a break in between each one to avoid light-headedness. This technique is also good for giving you a visual reference of your progress in strengthening your breath.
3. Sit in Nature
Sounds ‘hippy-dippy’, I know, but it really isn’t. Nature (the ocean, the trees) has a rhythm. You will notice if you spend enough time in it that the rhythm of nature is slow, consistent and unshakeable. For people who have a weak or fragile respiratory system, or a breathing pattern that is shallow and very reactive to outside stressors, sitting in nature is hugely beneficial in restoring breathing function.
If you allocate some time each day to sitting under a tree (preferably in a quiet place) or near the ocean (if you have access to it), your body will actually synchronise to the rhythm of nature, which is always in alignment. By doing this you can actually reset the rhythm of your nervous system, which will leave you feeling more grounded and level.
Trees, in particular, are excellent for this. You might have noticed that the structure of trees is similar to that of our lungs, with the trunk and branches mirroring that of the vascular structure inside our lungs. Try to match your breath in and breath out to the rhythm of trees as they move with the wind. You don’t really need to put much effort into this, as simply sitting in this environment, your breath will naturally adopt this rhythm.
The breath influences and is influenced by our mental and emotional state. One of the most basic elements in general health and feeling grounded, safe and confident in the world is a healthy breathing pattern.
Become aware of your breathing pattern, become aware of your emotional state when you notice your breathing is poor, and adjust your breath accordingly. Be present with yourself, breathe slowly, and focus on the breath out.
Work on opening your chest back up and re-activating your heart chakra. Use your breath to ground yourself back in your body and retrain your nervous system.
Be patient with the process and notice how much your quality of life and your mental state improves as your breathing pattern does.