To breathe or not to breathe

As a natural health therapist, I have found myself talking to my clients quite a lot about one of the most fundamental aspects of living - breathing. I often introduce it in a jovial way because it seems obvious – of course, we all breathe, however, the importance of the breath is often taken for granted and many of us don’t know how to breathe properly or use the breath to allow our body to work at its optimum level.

Many of the clients I support have stress related issues, these are becoming the most commonly reported causes of many physical, mental and emotional conditions and as a therapist I can feel stress held within the body during massage and reflexology sessions.

Stress is our internal response to external changes and challenges and can be related to work, finances, families, relationships, putting pressure on ourselves or focusing on what we can’t do, what we haven’t done and our deficits rather than our strengths. Stress manifests itself in many ways, often resulting in physical illnesses and disease.

Here I want to briefly explain what happens internally, the biology within the body, when we feel ‘stressed out’ and then to look at the importance of the breath to help reduce stress and support our body and mind to be healthy, happy and balanced.

Feeling stressed?

To explain being stressed, we need to turn our attention to our nervous system - the control centre of the body. Our nervous system also acts as a communication system between our brain and body.

It functions in two modes:

  • Parasympathetic – rest mode;
  • Sympathetic  – ‘fight or flight’ mode.

So what do these mean. Well, when our parasympathetic nervous system is in full swing, we are in non-stressful situations, the body is in a rested state and we are relaxed. In order for us to be in this mode, our parasympathetic system allows our body to conserve energy by slowing down our breathing and heart rate, by stimulating the digestive system so that the process of nutrient absorption and defacation can take place and regulating the function of many glands.

This is the ideal mode for the body work at its optimum. The body and mind are balanced and a state of homeostasis is achieved.  

When faced with stressful situations or emergencies, our sympathetic nervous system sends a signal to our brain that we are in danger or that our body is under attack by illness or disease. It puts us into ‘fight or flight’ mode in order to help us protect ourselves. Our heart rate speeds up, an increased volume of blood circulates around the body and adrenaline is produced so that we can respond appropriately i.e. to run away when being chased.

Also whilst in this mode, the stress hormone, Cortisol, is released into the body in order to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure in addition to shutting down the functions which aren’t crucial in these situations, for example, digestion and intestinal processes and immunity.

The physical symptoms when in fight or flight mode include quick and shallow breathing or even holding our breath, a fast heart beat, sweaty palms, shaking, clenching our jaw and tensing our muscles. We may experience these symptoms if we have a family conflict or we see our boss’s name in our emails late at night.

When we remain stressed or stew on a problem the body continues to release cortisol, which can stay in the body for up to 60 days. A body living even with low levels of stress hormones and an active sympathetic nervous system can have devastating effects on our health and well-being. The healthy cells of the body are attacked, which can then lead to illness, organ failure and disease.

This is where breathing properly comes in! We can use the breath to reverse our body being in fight or flight mode and helping it into rest (and relaxation) mode.  

Importance of the breath

Breathing properly, along with exercise and a well balanced diet, brings nourishment to our cells which, in turn, creates a health body and mind. When we are feeling stressed our breath will be shallow and quick and other physical symptoms will arise. Become aware of the signals our bodies are giving us. Once we are aware, take slow, deep, conscious breaths which will be a message to the brain that there is no emergency, no need for the body to activate our sympathetic nervous system. Instead, the parasympathetic mode will be stimulated, the heart rate slow & our breathing will also slow and become deeper, restoring balance in the body and mind.

There are a range of breathing exercises, or activities which focus on the breath such as yoga and mindfulness, that can really help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system allowing us to feel focused, calm and relaxed and less stressed.

Breathing exercises

For these exercises, your goal is to observe and control the breath – not always as easy as it sounds! You can try these exercises at stressful times or incorporate them into your daily routine, spending 10 minutes or so, focusing on your breath.

Exercise 1 - Alternate nostril breathing

The breath brings calm and balance. Starting in a comfortable position, hold the right thumb over the right nostril and inhale deeply through the left nostril. At the peak of inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril. Continue the pattern, inhaling through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb and exhaling through the left nostril.

Exercise 2 – Mindful breathing

Through my mindfulness practice, I started with a simple exercise like the one below and have advanced to other techniques. You can find many mindful breathing techniques online or by joining a mindfulness class.

Sit or lie in a comfortable position. You may choose to close your eyes or keep them open but with a soft focus.

Begin by gently moving your attention onto the process of breathing. Simply observe each breath as it happens. You may notice you most keenly observe the breath in the chest, the abdomen or at the back of the throat. You may observe the quality of your breath and the sensation of the breath at the nostrils. Really feel what it is like to breath, without feeling the need to alter your breath, just observing it as it happens. 

As you engage in this exercise you may find that your mind wanders. When you notice that this happens, simply notice it and gently bring your attention back to the breath. Sometimes you will find it easy to focus on your breath whereas other times it may be more difficult - the mind may be more active or you may feel that you are more easily distracted. Don’t worry about this, the more you engage with the breath and connect with the present moment, the more awareness you develop both about yourself and what happens in this moment. To draw this exercise to an end, expand your awareness from your breath to the room, noticing sounds, smells, the temperate. Remember, mindful breathing is a practice therefore it is a continuous journey.

Some useful tips

  If possible, schedule a set time to practice your breathing exercises each day;

  Avoid practicing when you’re sleepy;

  Expect ups and downs. Don’t be discouraged if you skip a few days, just start again and slowly build up momentum.