The Importance of Conscious Breathing
Breathing is something we all naturally do. It is both voluntary as we can alter our breath through our conscious control, and involuntary; even if our minds wander, we continue to breathe in air and expel carbon dioxide. Due to this, often we forget about how important breathing is to us. It doesn’t just keep us alive through oxygen. So, whether you are training for a big race or trying to calm that over- anxious mind, breathing is the key exercise that’s missing from your training regime.
Often, when we aren’t thinking about our breath, it can become irregular and shallow. So rather than breathing from your diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle separating the chest from the stomach area, we breathe from the upper part of our lungs.
Physical impacts of shallow breathing:
Shallow breathing results in reduced oxygen intake which impairs thinking. A study in the US in 2016 found that there is a strong connection between breathing and cognitive function. They found that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.
These researchers also found that shallow breathing disrupts the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which keeps the right amount of oxygen coming in and equal amounts of carbon dioxide going out.
Shallow breathing can increase blood pressure and increase the heart rate, both of which can contribute to panic or other emotions. The increased blood pressure can also lead to a elevated levels cortisol, the stress hormone, in your system
Shallow breathing reduces the proper use of the respiratory muscles as. This can then result in a reduced physical ability; you have less endurance and become winded faster.
Shallow breathing can cause sleep issues, complicating fatigue experienced by not breathing effectively with the respiratory muscles. This leads to—or exacerbates—pain, including headaches and pain in the neck and upper back due to the disengagement of the diaphragm.
Many people don't realise the importance of exercising your diaphragm and abdominal muscles alongside consciously focusing on your breathing and how this can impact your mental and physical health in both the long and short-term
Whilst there is less research on this, it is thought that the breathing can also work in the opposite direction and be used as a stressor too. This may explain why some breathing practices are able to have an energising effect. Faster and more dynamic breathing could be used to induce a controlled state of stress, helping to energise the body and could be used to help increase one’s stress tolerance.
For many years scientists believed that the brain stem was solely responsible for the process of breathing. However, a number of studies over the past 10 years have shown that paced breath actually uses neural networks beyond just the brainstem which are also related to emotion, attention and physical awareness.
The emotional state can also be affected by the breath. This explains why breathing practices have been found as an effective way of reducing anxiety, stress and depression. Activity in the amygdala suggests that quick breathing rates may trigger feelings like anxiety, anger, or fear. Other studies have shown that we tend to be more attuned to fear when we’re breathing quickly. Conversely, it may be possible to reduce fear and anxiety by slowing down our breath.
Even 5-10 minutes of slow deep breathing a day has been shown to relax and de-stress the mind and body. So when you’re next feeling worried or scared, try these breathing exercises to calm yourself and experience the physical and emotional impacts yourself:
Deep Breathing: also called belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and abdominal breathing. This can help ease stress, lower your blood pressure and relax tense muscles. When you learn healthy ways to relax, it can be easier to avoid unhealthy choices. Stress makes it harder to make healthy choices like picking good foods or finding the energy to exercise. When you’re relaxed, you can be more mindful.
Place one hand on your belly, just below your ribs. Place the other hand on your chest.
Take a regular breath.
Now take a slow, deep breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose. Pay attention as your belly swells up under your hand.
Holding your breath, pause for a second or two.
Slowly breathe out through your mouth. Pay attention as the hand on your belly goes in with the breath.
Do this several times until you have a calming rhythm.
Sighing is another type of breathing that helps calm the nervous system. It has an important role in preventing the alveoli in the lungs from collapsing. However, the act of sighing also helps to reset the nervous system when getting overwhelmed by stress and negative emotions.
Inhale a normal breath and hold for a second
Inhale a second time
Then exhale and release all the air