It all starts and ends with a breath. We start our lives with our very first inhalation, then we go on hardly even noticing we are breathing, up until we exhale for the last time. Of course there is more to life than this, but the fact that our lives literally depend on breathing, and that we are hardly doing it right, is shocking.
First, allow us to share with you why we are discussing a simple subconscious activity such as breathing. It started when I almost stormed out of a meditation class because of a sudden anxiety/panic attack. Going late into class, I missed the warm-up, which is a core part to getting your breathing right.
At first, I was shallow breathing, which means that I was inhaling to my chest instead of my lungs, where the stress receptors are; so, I was subconsciously setting my brain on flight mood. It took me minutes to calm my breathing, inhaling deeper made me feel better for a while, then it hit me again. I was overwhelmed with this odd disorientation, but this time because I was doing it right. When you manage to get into a meditative state, you feel euphoric, and even light-headed to a certain extent. Due to the fact that my body was not accustomed to breathing right or the blood flow that follows, it got me anxious.
This experience triggered many questions – What if I have been breathing incorrectly all my life? Could it be the reason behind my chronic anxiety? Is that why I always feel tired? Does it affect my concentration? What about other body functions and organs? Is it possible that my breathing is doing me more harm than good? This is what I found out.
The Anatomy of Breathing
First, here is a brief summary of the physical mechanism of breathing. Our respiration process includes:
A respiratory system that is composed of
– Airways, which are passages through which the air enters and exits the body. These airways include the nose, the mouth, the voice box, the windpipe/ trachea and bronchial tubes.
– Two lungs, which each include bronchial tubes that are attached to air sacs named Alveoli. Those sacs are covered with a web of tiny blood vessels called capillaries connected to arteries and veins bring in blood rich in oxygen and pushing carbon dioxide out of the body. The blood rich in oxygen is transmitted to the heart through the Pulmonary vein, and then the heart transfers it to the rest of the body.
– Muscle groups that take part in the respiration process are – the diaphragm muscle, which is the primary muscle in breathing, the intercostal muscles, which surrounds the ribs; in addition to abdominal muscles and neck muscles.
Respiratory Control Center
The whole respiration process is controlled through the brain. Our breathing rates and its depth are managed by sensors located in the brainstem. Those sensors are activated through chemical, neural and hormonal signals, which subsequently stimulate the muscle groups involved in breathing to move accordingly during inhalation and exhalation. Also, in addition to the brain sensors, other respiratory controlling sensors are located in the airways and alveoli, as well as in joints and muscles. All those sensors work together to facilitate the respiration process.
What Type of Breather Are You?
Is your respiratory system carrying its job optimally? The only way to know is to identify what type of breather you are. Here are the most common types of breathing:
The diaphragm muscle is the primary muscle for breathing, which indicates that diaphragmatic breathing is the most efficient type of breathing for both our physical and psychological health.
The normal way of breathing involves the diaphragm moving downward during inhalation to make room for the lungs to expand; while moving upward during exhalation, to push the air out of the lungs. This movement, however, gets reversed in paradoxical breathing.
There are contradicting views concerning this pattern of breathing; while some, especially those in the yoga and martial arts fields, argue that this method strengthens the abdominal muscles and promotes a healthier immune system, other experts believe that it is unnatural and can cause damage in the long run.
Shallow Chest Breathing:
This is the most common incorrect type of breathing, in which minimal air reaches the lower lobes of the lungs. Studies have shown that the upper part of the lungs carries six times less oxygen than the lower lobes, which means that shallow breathing results in insufficient oxygen intake and transmission, which consequently impacts our energy and body functions.
Chronic Breath Holding:
This pattern of breathing usually accompanies stress and anxiety; it could cause anxiety, or in other cases, be caused by anxiety. Chronic breath holding is when one frequently holds their breath subconsciously for brief seconds, either after inhalation or exhalation. This pattern of breathing causes chest pain, and increases tension on the jaw and face. It also affects the thyroid glands function.
In order to know what type of breather you are, you need to become more conscious of your breathing, even during exercising. It is not exactly easy to become conscious of a such involuntary activity, but by doing so, regardless of how much practice it would take, you will not only enhance your physical functionality, but it would impact your psychological state as well.
Common Symptoms of Incorrect Breathing
– Chronic fatigue due to a lack of oxygen transmitted to the body cells. This reduces energy level.
– Excessive and frequent yawning could also be an indication of insufficient oxygen supply in the bloodstream.
– Upper-body muscles tension.
– Anxiety, because shallow breathing sends alerting signals to the brain. Also, the lack of carbon dioxide causes disorientation, which might lead to panic attacks.
– Teeth grinding during sleep, due to rising levels of stress.
– Irregular heartbeat as a result of unbalanced breathing patterns.
– A weak immune system, because shallow breathing reduces the number of lymphocyte white blood cells.
– Gaining or struggling to lose weight is also a symptom of shallow breathing. According to a study conducted at Hampton University, shallow breathing slows down the lymphatic system, which will weaken the absorption of long-chain fatty acids, and consequently causes fat accumulation.
– Irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive problems.
Of course, these symptoms can occur as a result of other health issues, so it is important to exclude other factors first.
A Simple Test
Also, a simple breathing test that you can take is to lie flat on the floor for several minutes, with one hand on your abdomen and the other on the chest. Observe the movement of your hands as you breathe. For instance, if the hand placed on your chest moves upward during inhalation, then that means you are a shallow breather. Other breathing patterns can only be detected through observation, like mouth breathing or breath-holding patterns.
In addition to being more conscious and mindful of your breathing, there are several exercises you can do to optimize your respiratory system; however, it is recommended to practice them with experts and not by yourself.
Fortunately, the past couple of years, Egypt has witnessed a rise in psychological health awareness and bettering our overall wellbeing, shedding light on yoga and meditation practices. Those practices put major emphasis on the quality of breathing and mindfulness. For starters, you can learn about the various pranayama techniques, which is breathing in yoga, which will help you become more in control and aware of the airflow in your body.
Teaching our children to breathe right at a young age could prevent many future health problems, and would allow them to live a more relaxed life, keeping in mind that it is also easier to learn and embrace habits at a young age.
In a recent interview, Steve Maxwell, the 65-year-old international fitness guru, says “The only nutrient that people aren’t talking about is oxygen.” Maxwell argues that we often focus on diet and food, while ignoring life’s most essential element. The ability to breathe on our own is a blessing, and we often take it for granted.