Breaths are kind of like potato chips—you can’t take just one.
There! You’re doing it again!
However, though you’re breathing, you may not be breathing correctly.
We all have a tendency to do more shallow breathing throughout the day, instead of healthy, deep breathing.
That is, we draw air into the chest area (using intercostal muscles) instead of the lungs via the diaphragm (a sheet of muscle underneath the lungs).
This type of shallow breathing does have a purpose: to be used during fever, pain, anxiety, shock, fear or danger. It’s not supposed to be used for long periods of time.
Yet most of us commonly do it all day long without even realizing it. And here’s the problem with that: your body is giving you a clear signal of response to prolonged stress.
Right now, you’re not paying attention to your body’s signals. Let’s change that!
But Wait: Is My Shallow Breathing Causing Stress Or Vice Versa?
Shallow, upper chest breathing is part of the typical stress response. It can then become a matter of the ‘chicken or egg paradox’, because shallow breathing can subliminally signal your brain that there is danger. Yet, stress itself causes anxiety and forces shallow breathing along with the activation of your ‘fight or flight system.
This evolutionary adaptation was designed to keep you safe from harm. Unfortunately, evolution hasn’t caught up with our modern lifestyle pressures. It only has prepared us for two states of being: safe or dangerous.
Your brain’s warning system doesn’t recognize that you’re just upset about a banking screw-up; it thinks that bank notices your reading is the equivalent of a boa constrictor about to bite your handoff.
Related: 3 Surprising Ways To Fight Stress
Now it goes into protection mode: your heartbeat speeds up, and your breathing becomes shallower and faster in order to get more oxygen for fighting or fleeing.
The Dangers Of Shallow Breathing
Shallow breathing disrupts the balance of gases in your body. Your body begins releasing adrenaline and reacting as though you are in a fearful situation, even though you’re not.
You’d think that all the shallow breathing that you do all day long would possibly mean that you get more oxygen, but it actually means that you’re over-breathing…or in other words, you’re breathing out carbon dioxide too quickly, before your body has a chance to make more.
Oxygen fills your lungs right when you breathe, but carbon dioxide (CO2) takes more time to develop. When you shallow breathe, each discharge of breath takes out more CO2 than your body has created. Do this for too long and you’ll hyperventilate—and nobody wants that.
How To Fix Your Shallow Breathing
Your stress response can be greatly reduced by consciously breathing using your diaphragm. Shallow breathing is one of the most important things you can control when you have stress.
Yes, this is often easier said than done. But research has shown that controlling your breath can help to manage stress and stress-related conditions.
Related: Why You Need To Stress Less
So how do we achieve this breathing safety zone? Here are the three big tips for learning how to deep breathe.
How To Deep Breathe
Begin with simple self-awareness towards how you’re reacting to your anxiety. Try to bring attention to when you’re shallow breathing.
You need to consciously remind your body how to breathe in a healthier way so that you don’t continue to shallow breathe even when you don’t have stress or anxiety.
2. Practice proper breathing
Practice makes perfect! Try taking very slow, very deliberate breaths in and out through the nose. Take at least 5 seconds to breathe in. Hold for 2 seconds. Then breathe out for 6 to 7 seconds. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
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Notice how your upper chest and abdomen are moving while you breathe? Try to allow your diaphragm to fill more fully along with your abdomen, rather than your chest.
3. Breathe away stress
With each breath, allow tension in your body to slip away. Once you are comfortably breathing slowly and with your abdomen, sit quietly and enjoy the sensation of physical relaxation. Deliberately copying a relaxed breathing pattern will actually calm the nervous system that controls your body’s stress response.
Breathing is something you do constantly, 24/7, so you should be doing it right. With these techniques, learn how to deep breathe so you can breathe your stress away!
Jeanne Ricks, CHC, is recent Director of Holistic Wellness Programs for The City College of New York. Her credentials include a bachelor’s degree; and certificates earned in health counseling through Columbia University and from the Open Center in New York, through their professional training program in herbalism covering Traditional, Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Native American traditions. Ricks is certified as a holistic health practitioner from the American Association of Drugless Practitioners and as a clinical hypnotist through the National Guild of Hypnotists. She is also the author of The Biology of Beating Stress: How Changing Your Environment, Your Body, and Your Brain Can Help You Find Balance And Peace.
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