“But I’ve been breathing all my life, why do I need to ‘Practice’ breathing?”
.. is a common response I hear from clients who get given breathing retraining exercises as part of their rehab. Why should you practice something you do every moment without thinking about it, right?
Fatigue. Anxiety. Brain fog. Breathlessness. Headaches. Bloating. An upset gut. A tight chest. Dizziness. Numbness or tingling. Neck, shoulder or back pain. Poor concentration. Full body tension. Muscle ache.
Any of these symptoms sound familiar? While most these could be due to other medical issues, they are also all signs of a poor breathing pattern. Breathing is a natural, instinctual reflex that is necessary for our survival. However, the way that we breath can often become altered due to many subtle influences on our body over time. Factors like stress, hormones, poor posture, asthma, caffeine, perceived pressure, medication and having a blocked nose to name a few. Throughout our lives our individual experiences and thoughts can shape how we breath. This in turn can influence how we move, react and interact.
Our breathing pattern controls our body’s PH level, it transfers oxygen (O2) into our tissues via our blood and it is responsible for getting rid of carbon dioxide (CO2) as we exhale. When this delicate balance of chemicals is thrown out of balance our body internally responses in ways which cause some of the above symptoms and more. Often these changes can be subtle, however their long-term effects can leave the body working inefficiently and leave you with unexplained nagging symptoms.
One of the most powerful effects of our breathing pattern is the one that communicates to our nervous system whether we are relaxed, or we are in a state of stress or danger. Hyperventilation may make you think of a person breathing frantically into a paper bag, but this occurs anytime we breath faster than 14 breaths per minute. Breathing out too fast decreases our CO2, making our PH more alkaline. This reaction invokes the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. The SNS is wonderful when you are trying to run away from a chasing dog or are late for a meeting, however if we continue to breath out too fast we can often stay in this mode longer than we need to. Robbing us of calm, relaxed, unstressed moments in our day. Decreasing our CO2 levels, ie. breathing out too short and sharp also effects the ability of O2 to be transported by our blood to our tissues. And we all know we need oxygen for pretty much every function of the body.
Ideally at rest, we want to breath 10-14 breaths her minute, inhaling through our nose into our belly. Another common poor breathing habit is when our chest and shoulders lift up toward our ears when we breath. If this is the case, we likely do not activate our diaphragm; the muscle that lives in our belly that is meant for breathing. This muscle functions similarly to our heart, in the way that it does not fatigue to the point it needs rest. When we breath with our chest, neck and shoulders we ask the muscles in this area to draw air into our lungs. The issue here is that those muscles like our arm and leg muscles are skeletal muscles, which means they work on a fatigue and recovery system, they can not go and go and go like the diaphragm. Breathing with your belly can be as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one if you are not used to it. There is often a subconscious drive to keep still through our lower ribs and belly as the want for a flat stomach is a social norm these days.
Breathing well can even mean the difference between a calm logical reaction to something a loved one says, or a fly off the handle emotional reaction. In other words, breathing well strengthens the area in the brain which reacts with calm logical through to stimulus called the hippocampus. If we are in a state of hyperventilation and stress and our SNS is in control our reaction will more likely be processed by another area of the brain called the amygdala. The Amygdala reacts based on previous stimulus threat and can cause those irrational, inappropriate reactions.
So, for all those achey necks, stressed out brains and feelings of overreaction out there, give your body the well-deserved rest it is screaming for. Sit down, place a hand on your belly, once you have exhaled fully, breath in through your nose slowly to the count of 4 and let your belly rise up into a big balloon. Then breath out SLOWLY, for longer than you breathed in. Feel your body pause and rest here for a moment and then repeat.
The way you breath is one of the most underestimated but essential aspects of your health and wellbeing. These are just a few of the amazing ways our breathing can improve our daily function and help us to live a more enjoyable life. If this has rung some bells for your body and you are ready to make lasting changes, book a breathing assessment at Bureta Physio by calling us on 07 576 1860 or fill in the form below.
Melanie Smith BHSc Physiotherapy
Physiotherapist & Qualified Bradcliff Breathing Practitioner