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This thing called breathing

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

We all know how to breathe right? Kind of yes. It’s true that we are all merrily breathing away in order to stay alive, however somewhere along the line many of us have forgotten how to breathe properly.


Watch a new baby breathing and you’ll see very noticeable movement of their ribs (front, sides, and back), and an inflation of their belly. Watch most adults breathe and you’ll observe something completely different; many breathe only into the upper chest, barely moving their ribs or abdomen. Their neck muscle may tense, the shoulders hike up, and you may notice their breath rate is quite fast and shallow.


Somewhere between being a baby and being an adult the way we breathe can change significantly.


You may think this doesn’t matter; you are still inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, and you are still alive so really does it matter. It does, it matters a lot. How you breathe has an enormous effect on both your mental and physical health and can be the difference between us feeling healthy and well, and us feeling weak, stressed, anxious and all round just a bit wobbly. Breathing affects us through the following ways:


1. All movement starts with the breath

The muscles of breathing work together to create something called intra-abdominal pressure. It is this pressure that exerts force down the muscles in order to move the limbs. If intra-abdominal pressure is weak due to poor breathing, the body is less able to move effectively and is less strong. Learn to breathe properly and you can almost guarantee all movement will feel easier; you will be able to lift heavier, run faster, balance better, or hold a pose longer.


2. Breathing is closely linked with the nervous system

How we breathe plays a massive part in whether our nervous system is in rest and digest or fight or flight mode i.e. whether we feel calm or whether we feel stressed. Breathing is a matter of survival because the brain cells can live only a matter of minutes without oxygen. The brain therefore closely monitors how we breathe - monitoring the location, rate, intensity and ratio of breath - to determine how safe we are. There’s about a million variations of breath I could mention here but at its simplest – short shallow breaths into the upper chest will cause the brain to interpret threat, whereas deep slow breathes down into the belly and a long exhale will lead the brain to interpret calm.


3. Breathing is connected to emotions

Because of a close association with the nervous system the way that we breathe can be significantly affected by, and have an impact on, our emotions. We are probably all familiar with our breath suddenly becoming fast and shallow when we are scared. What is perhaps less well known is that how we breathe can also determine our emotions. A piece of recent research was able to identify breathing patterns for specific emotions i.e. researchers were able to differentiate specific ‘modes’ for sadness, rage, fear etc. People were then asked to breathe in a specific mode and asked to report how they felt. In over 50% of the cases people reported feeling the emotion identified for that mode.


It is entirely possible to make ourselves depressed, anxious, fearful just by the way that we breathe. It is also possible to shift ourselves into a more positive emotional state by changing our breath pattern.


4. Poor breathing creates disease

Some scientists now believe that many diseases originate from chronically oxygen deprived cells. Cells that do not get enough oxygen do not function as well, are less healthy, more likely to mutate etc, and poor breathing patterns create tissue hypoxia and inflammation which in turn create disease.


Disease is also created by living in a state of fight or flight mode for too long. Fight or flight mode was only designed for short bursts of time, and when we live in this state for extended periods there is a whole cascade of feedback loops and hormonal/chemical/immune reactions in the body that both create illness and prevent recovery. Long term exposure to fight or flight mode is associated with everything from arthritis to heart disease to cancer. Since poor breathing sends us into fight or flight, habitual poor breathing may be at least partially responsible for disease.


Given the importance of breathing, the question I am often asked is what can cause it to go so wrong. There are many reasons so I’ll just choose a few to mention here:


1. Trauma

There are a lot of traumas, particularly severe traumas, that are associated with restriction of breath - for example strangulation, drowning, being trapped in a crash. Not only that, because of it’s strong link to emotion, breathing can be significantly affected at the time of a trauma, for example holding the breath, hyperventilation, constricted breathing. These breathing patterns are remembered and can be triggered by memories or association with the trauma. Given enough triggers these breathing patterns can become a new normal.


Traumas do not have to be huge events like war, sexual assault or tsunami. Everyone will suffer traumatic events during their lives; some severe, some low level. People may not psychologically recognise these events as traumatic, but the body does and the nervous system does. Trauma can be having a profound effect on a person and their breathing without the individual ever being aware.


2. Habit

If you spend enough time living in stressful situations, living in fight or flight mode and taking shallow breaths, these patterns simply become a habit. Muscles designed for effective breathing start to switch off and accessory muscles take over. These muscles were not designed for breathing, so as well as being fairly ineffective they also tire easily and become tight and sore. Over time poor breathing patterns settle in, new pathways are made in the brain, and poor breathing becomes automatic.


From the minute we are born (actually even inside the womb where we are exposed to our mothers stress) we are exposed to stress and trauma. Traumas accumulate and build up. Ineffective breathing patterns may build gradually as the body starts to live with increasing layers of stress.


3. Breathing suppresses emotions

Because of the link between emotion and breathing and between breathing and memory, it is thought that some of us unconsciously use our breathing to suppress unwanted feelings or to forget things we don’t want to remember. In an attempt to keep these things buried we can become rigid in our breathing patterns and resistant to changing them.


It is not uncommon for a person first starting to learn to breathe better to find it a bit uncomfortable, overwhelming, or possibly even scary as deep breaths start to release long lost emotions or memories.


4. Scarring

All injuries, surgeries, tattoos and piercings create scarring in the body. Scar tissue is tight, restrictive, and it binds muscles and tissues preventing them from moving properly. Scar tissue also grows a bit like a weed spreading widely through the body, filling spaces and wrapping itself around organs and tissues.


If scarring occurs near a muscle of breathing it is likely that the muscle will become restricted, will not be able to do its job properly, and other muscles will compensate. Breathing becomes compromised. Any injury around the abdomen, back, or pelvic floor is likely to have a significant impact on breathing, but due to fascia (tissue that weaves through the body connecting everything) it is possible for a scar absolutely anywhere in the body to be having an effect on breathing.


Breathing is obviously crucial for keeping us alive, but it is also hugely important for the quality of our life. Next time you have a few moments, pay attention to your breathing; notice where you breathe, the intensity and speed of your breath, the ratio of inhale to exhale, and whether you are breathing using your nose or your mouth.


How you breathe matters, so if you notice something amiss it may be time to learn how to breathe better; to learn to breathe like you did before all that stuff happened to you, to learn to breathe like a baby.


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