Breathing, it’s the first and last thing we do in life. The breath is our body’s bookends. Without breath, we have no life, yet we don’t often think about how we can optimize our breathing during stress, engaging in sports, when we are angry, and even during the joys of happiness.
How we breathe
When you breathe in, or inhale, the muscle at the bottom of your ribcage or diaphragm contracts and moves downward. This act of inhalation fills the lungs. Think of a balloon that that you blow into, you can fill it fully or partially. Same with your lungs. A deep breath will fill your lungs and a shallow breath will only fill part of your lungs.
When you take a breath, air travels in through your nose and/or mouth and down your windpipe or trachea into your lungs. Once air enters the lungs it fills the tiny air sacs where the real action takes place. These air sacs (like a cluster of grapes) are where oxygen enters the bloodstream and exchanges it with carbon dioxide to travel out of your body and into the atmosphere. We do this 17,000-30,000 each day.
Breathing for a better calm
Have you ever noticed that when you become fearful, anxious, angry, or in pain, your breath is much shallower and you might even hold your breath? As someone who has asthma, when my breathing gets triggered by something (dust and cold air are two of my triggers) I tend to breathe fast and shallow, creating a feeling that I can’t catch my breath. When you can’t catch your breath, it is very distressing and you sometimes start breathing faster. People with COPD can often experience this feeling.
Slowing down the breath
I have learned how to slow my breathing down and will share a few of my favorite techniques with you. Slowing your breathing allows the vagus nerve (a component of your parasympathetic nervous system) to activate, which in turn slows your heart rate helping you feel calm and peaceful. Meditators do this as do performers. Take a look at a TED talk and you may see the speaker take a long deep breath to calm themselves before speaking. I would often do this before giving a talk in front of a group of surgeons (that was nerve-racking) or other large groups. It put me in a place of calm and allow me to speak with authority.
I also use this same type of focus on my breathing when I run. Sometimes when running you can feel your breathing getting fast, almost gasping. I focus on just one breath at a time, taking it slow. It really helps! Someone I use to train with at the track always commented that my breathing was so smooth and slow. It took concentration, but I was able to slow it down and subsequently my running improved.
Two breathing techniques or tips you can use
I like to do what is called box breathing. Think of your breathing as a box. One side is inhalation, the top is a breath-hold, the other side is an exhalation, and the bottom another breath-hold. I like to count to 4 with the inhale, hold for 2, and exhale and count to 4. Repeating the process until I feel my breathing is slow and controlled. I’ll do this during the day for a few breaths and it also refreshes my thinking. Not quite a cup of coffee, but it keeps me from the afternoon fades.
365 Breathing technique
This is a concept recommended by therapists for reducing stress and called 365. Here’s how to do it:
- Do this breathwork 3 x/day or more
- Breathe six times/minute (inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for five seconds each time) for five minutes
- Repeat 365 days a year.
Having breathing techniques, whichever you choose in your tool kit can help you immensely. It can even help when you watch those scary horror or dinosaur movies or have that latest political discussion.