We are constantly on the go- whether physically, mentally or emotionally- we are going, doing, and thinking about a million different things. That’s why, in the midst of all the chaos, it is crucial we remember to breathe. Literally.
Oxygen is so important to our bodies that our brain and nervous system breathe for us automatically so that we don’t even have to think about it. However, many of us are still in a constant state of hyperventilation. Amid the chaos of life, we unknowingly take short, shallow breaths. In moments of excitement, stress, anxiety or surprise, we will even find ourselves holding our breath. Oftentimes it is not until we are instructed to take a deep breath that we even realize we weren’t breathing fully before.
As we breathe deeply most of the work is done by our diaphragm, a muscle located beneath the lungs and above the abdomen. When the diaphragm contracts, it pulls down on the lungs, increasing their size and drawing air into them. The outer surface of the lungs stick to the inner surface of the rib cage so when the lungs expand, so do the rib cage and abdomen. If we take short and shallow breaths, or if the diaphragm becomes inhibited and weak due to poor posture, stress or bad habits, we rely on the muscles of the neck and rib cage to take on the hefty task of expanding and lifting our rib cage for the lungs. The body will sacrifice a lot in order to keep breathing, which includes muscular health. When we rely on the scalenes and SCM (muscles in the front of the neck) to facilitate breath rather than merely assisting, the muscles become easily over worked, sensitive and rigid.
This is what happens when we breathe:
If your breathing is shallow your body is probably in “fight or flight” mode from reacting to stress. Taking a minute or two to sit quietly and focus on your breathing helps your body achieve a state of calm. It shifts from functioning out of the sympathetic nervous system- characterized by increased blood pressure and muscular tension- to the parasympathetic nervous system which puts the body in a state of relax and regenerate. Deep breathing lowers heart rate and blood pressure and elicits a relaxation response in the body.
To properly breathe deeply you should sit up tall, creating more space in the lungs, drop your shoulders, and take a full deep breath through the nose for a count of 4 or 5. As you inhale, place your hand on your stomach and it should expand like a balloon. Hold the breath for 2 or 3 counts then exhale for 4 or 5 counts. As you exhale your hand on your belly should start to come back toward your spine as your diaphragm relaxes. At the end of the exhale hold your breath for 2 or 3 counts then repeat your inhale.
You can also alter your breath to help you wake up or go to sleep. If you need help waking up or getting over a mid-day slump, simply inhale for longer than you exhale. (Inhale 6 counts, Hold 2 counts, Exhale 4 counts). Of if you are trying to calm down or get to sleep then exhale longer than the inhale. (Inhale 4 counts, Hold 2 counts, Exhale 6 counts). If at any time you feel dizzy or lightheaded stop and allow your breath to return to normal.
May your breath be with you.