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How Do You Breathe? : Deep Breathing & Mental Health

Breathing is such an integral part of our physical and mental health yet is so instinctive that it is easily overlooked. Practices like meditation and yoga put strong emphasis on concentrating on our breath to alleviate our stress and anxiety, but do we know how to breath? We will explore the deep breathing technique, which is the fastest and cheapest way to reduce anxiety.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Apodaca / Unsplash Images

If you live in a city you are 21% more likely to develop anxiety disorders. In many cases, something as simple as focusing on your breath can help you calm down and gradually regulate your emotions. Unknowingly most of us practice shallow breathing, which involves breathing from the chest, however there are some negative effects with this technique that we will uncover.

Shallow Breathing Could Be Damaging To Your Health

Shallow breathing involves drawing of minimal breath into the lungs, usually by drawing air into the chest area using the intercostal muscles rather than throughout the lungs via the diaphragm. When babies breathe you will notice that it is their abdomen rather than their chest that moves up and down as they breathe - this is called deep or diaphragmatic breathing. This is how we should be breathing. Shallow breathing is said to be the body’s response to stress and has serious negative effects on our health. When we breathe with our chests, we use muscles in our shoulders, necks and chests in order to expand our lungs, resulting in headaches, chest pains as well as increased risk of injury. It also affects our posture as our shoulders slump forward.

An article by Harvard Medical School reports that the cycle of stress caused by shallow breathing has been linked to a suppression of the immune system, leaving your body susceptible to colds and other illnesses. Studies have shown that long term shallow breathing is also a precursor for heart problems.

What is Deep Breathing and Why Is It Better For You?

Deep, or diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful technique to help calm the mind. The ancient meditation traditions knew that the breath and the mind are very closely linked. You can help self moderate your moods and mental states by controlling your breath, improve your concentration and overcome mental illness. Tibetan Meditation Master Lama Yeshe says: “If you are aware, you will notice that people who are emotionally or mentally disturbed—for example, those who are depressed—breathe differently from normal people. This shows that the way the breath energy moves through the nervous system is very closely connected with the mind."

Diaphragmatic breathing is a natural and relaxed form of breathing in all mammals. This breathing technique is said to occur in mammals whenever they are in a state of relaxation, i.e. when there is no clear and present danger in their environment. As shallow breathing is the body’s response to stressful situations, it is important to learn the proper breathing technique in order to alleviate our bodies of unnecessary tension, further improving our mental and physical health.

How Can You Practice Deep Breathing?

You can practice deep breathing anywhere; whether you are in your office, a bus, a waiting room or lying down before bed. There is no equipment necessary, just follow these simple steps:

Image courtesy of Matthew Henry via StockSnap

Step 1

Find a relaxing and quiet place to sit down or lie on your back. Close your eyes, and put your hand on your stomach so you can feel it rise and fall and help you concentrate on your breathing. Begin by breathing in deeply through your nose from your belly up. While inhaling count to five. Even when you think you can’t inhale any more, try to squeeze a little more air in to allow your lungs and stomach to fully inflate. This enables oxygen to reach the depths of your lungs, to inflate all the alveoli, in turn breaking up any toxins and pollutants that may have accumulated.

Step 2

Hold your breath for several seconds and then exhale over the course of another five count. When you think you can’t exhale any more, keep blowing from the deepest depths of your lungs and stomach. You should feel your chest and abdomen flatten and pull a bit inward. Repeat this breathing technique 9 to 12 times.

At first attempt deep breathing can feel unnatural, it just takes some practice. But once you've gotten used to it, it becomes as easy as, well breathing. You will start to feel calmer by the 10th breath and should lower your blood pressure as well. As you improve, you can lengthen the number of deep breaths to 20. Performing this exercise on a daily basis will help increase your lung capacity, build your energy, and help relieve stress. It won’t take long before you notice positive improvements!

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