Breathing is thought of as the most natural thing in the world and something most of us don’t even think too much about on a daily basis. It is, however, vital for life and both an incredible way to reduce stress and promote relaxation in the body.
Now, more than ever, breathing as a powerful mind, body, soul connection and medically proven practise for health and wellbeing is something we can all incorporate into our daily lives1. Let’s take a look at the physical process of breathing, how breath improves relaxation, and some helpful suggestions to try.
Why Breathing Is So Important
Breathing is something that we do without even thinking about it - along with most of the functions that happen in our body by default. But, what we may not realise is that many of us take more shallow breaths, using only one-third of their lung capacity on each breath intake. Shallow breathing is becoming more common often due to living a more sedentary lifestyle, sudden or chronic pain that activates the nervous system, respiratory conditions such as asthma, and stress2.
Emotional stress, and how we have been taught to hold it in or push it down, literally holding our breath to get through the day, is believed to also contribute to shallow breathing.3
Breathing is part of our inherent nature, breath is the thing that keeps all of our systems functioning. Without it, we can experience fatigue, dizzy spells, depression and anxiety, headaches, and bronchial problems4.
Lack of oxygen can also lead to more serious complaints such as circulatory problems, nervous system dysfunction and problems with internal organs. When we aren’t breathing deeply and effectively, our body is in permanent survival mode, that fight or flight response, all systems are on alert.
Deep breathing is more than just a spiritual or mindfulness practise, it’s how the body heals, as the blood cells transport oxygen through the organs and keep us alive and functioning. It’s how we calm the nervous system and reduce stress in the body, returning to a calm and relaxed state3.
The Physical Process Of Breathing
The three types of breathing are thoracic, diaphragmatic, and clavicular.
Thoracic breathing, or chest breathing, is the default style that most of us experience daily, believing that it is optimum. Chest breathing fills the middle and upper portion of the lungs with air, completely ignoring the lower lungs, and means we don’t get the most efficient or effective oxygen intake in each breath1.
Chest breathing is the fastest way of getting a quick injection of oxygen into the blood and normally occurs during exercise, or if anxious or fearful. Many people chest breathe by default and, as a result, can experience heightened stress, anxiousness, and - when too much carbon dioxide is expelled - leading to faintness, pins and needles and what some refer to as “panic attacks”4.
Diaphragmatic Inhalation, or breathing from the diaphragm or midriff often has to be relearned in adult life. Infants and small children use their diaphragms exclusively for breathing - in fact chest breathing which often causes tension and disrupts oxygen flow, cannot occur until after the bony chest matures1.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the normal natural way to breathe when you are relaxed which SHOULD be most of the time, and enables the lungs to be completely filled and emptied with each breath so providing more oxygen for metabolism. At the same time, diaphragmatic breathing limits the buildup of the lactic acid and carbon dioxide waste products that can lead to tiredness and nervousness6.
Clavicular breathing is a less common breathing style only observed when the body’s oxygen demands are very great. It is where the collar bones are pulled up slightly filling the top of the lungs only with air7. Some people with advanced respiratory problems and over inflated lungs can only manage this type of breath.
For relaxation, deep abdominal diaphragmatic breathing is the optimum breathing we need for total relaxation both physically and emotionally.
Relaxation For Better Health And Wellbeing
Normal levels of stress are part of our innate physiology, designed to keep us safe and alive with positive action, such as if we need to act quickly or run away from danger. During these times of arousal and stress, our sympathetic nervous system - our fight, flight, or freeze response - activates. The body instinctively goes into survival mode to act quickly and stay alive. This is when shallow chest breathing occurs, muscles become tense, heart rate increases, and a flood of hormones are released8.
This is acceptable and natural for short periods of time, however, ongoing stress can lead to overload and may lead to problems such as high blood pressure, headaches, back and muscle pain, insomnia and other health concerns.
For too long, we have ignored this, continuing on in our busy lives, without taking time to allow the body to recuperate. Stress compounds and puts pressure on our nervous system and so it’s imperative to incorporate daily practises that allow us to return to a normal state of relaxed awareness and alertness.
The most effective way of combating stress and preventing illness caused by stress is to make time for regular relaxation. This can include active relaxation techniques, such as yoga and meditation, or passive relaxation, such as listening to music or walking in nature.
In the relaxed state there is regular diaphragmatic breathing, muscular relaxation, and mental calm. Studies show that regular relaxation exercises can prevent many health ailments but can also improve work output, sleep patterns, and life enjoyment generally1.
3 Ways To Incorporate Relaxation And The Breath Into Your Daily Routine
1) Observe Your Breath
Stress experts say that a good way to introduce relaxation into your daily life is to simply watch your breathing patterns and become aware of times where stress and thought patterns may lead to more anxious breathing.
Tip: Any time you notice yourself chest breathing, take a full abdominal breath in slowly and you should feel muscles throughout the entire body relax and let go as you exhale.
2) Schedule In Rest and Relaxation
In our busy lives, we’ve been conditioned to feel like taking time to relax is lazy or unproductive, which is why stress and stress-related health conditions are so prevalent in our society. Scheduling in time for rest and relaxation throughout the day is so important to actually managing the day-to-day stresses of life.
Quick Exercise: Schedule in 10-15 minutes daily to focus on the breath and relax, physically and emotionally. Choose a quiet calm place to sit comfortably. Close the eyes and spend 10 minutes focusing on deep diaphragmatic breathing, focusing on the coolness of the breath in and the warmth of the breath out. Try not to allow other thoughts to come into your mind during this time but remain centered and focused on the breath.
Regular daily practice of this deep abdominal breathing will support the mind and body, and help to reduce stress and anxiety.
You may like to pop a few drops of a calming essential oil in your diffuser to promote further relaxation and activate the olfactory system to aid your mental and emotional wellbeing too.
There are also many Australian grown essential oils that are great for unwinding and managing stress. Here are some of my favourites:
Or perhaps you would prefer something a bit more traditional. If so, either the Zea Essentials Calming Lifestyle Blend or the Relaxation Essential Oil Collection both feature a great selection of well-known essential oils for aiding tranquility and relaxation.
3) Find Breathing and Relaxation Practises That Work For You
Intentionally making breathing and relaxation a part of your day to day wellbeing - like brushing your teeth, drinking water, and exercising - might seem like just another thing on the to-do list (and, therefore, adding to your already busy life), but is so important in the long run.
Other tips worth pursuing to reduce stress include:
- Slow down your eating, talking, and daily pursuits
- Exercise regularly, spending time to stretch and deep breathe before and after your routine
- Practise improving your posture and your core muscles, which can impact the body’s ability to breathe deeply and naturally2
- Improve your nutrition avoiding too many stimulants; such as caffeine, alcohol, and sugar
- Go to bed earlier and try to get 8 hours of sleep every night
- Learn to release emotions in a positive way rather than bottling up anger and resentment, which can become detrimental to health
- Work on your inner self and understand how you can influence your thoughts and emotions in a positive way
A Case Study
Many years ago, in my practice in Sydney, a 12-year-old girl was presented to me by her mother with chronic asthma and respiratory problems, diagnosed at 4. On observation the young girl was pale, fragile, had shallow breathing and taking 6 different medications.
Her mother was concerned that she still was struggling with her breath and so this is how I came to meet her. I took her upstairs and laid her face down on the massage table and observed and felt a high degree of tightness through the thoracic area of her back.
I spent half an hour gently but with intention massaging through this area and felt the muscles relax a little. I then spent the next half an hour speaking to and teaching her abdominal diaphragmatic breathing which, at first, she found very hard but toward the end was getting the idea and doing quite well. When we walked down the stairs her mother was amazed as I was that this girl had some colour in her face and seemed to be breathing somewhat better. I suggested regular weekly treatment of the same and a trip back to her respiratory specialist for review. Over the course of six months, they reduced her medications by half until she was down to occasionally using Ventolin.
I personally believe that - like many other people - she had grown up with shallow breathing habits which heightened her asthmatic tendencies that evolved into chronic respiratory problems. Learning proper deep breathing and relaxation had a positive effect on her diagnosis and improved her quality of life significantly. Please always make sure to get professional medical advice for your personal circumstances.
Breath Is Life
As we find ourselves in a time of greater stress and a global situation that creates further impact on the respiratory system, now - more than ever - taking the time to learn to breathe properly and incorporate regular periods of relaxation is essential.
Though stress is sometimes unavoidable, and we can get caught up in the day-to-day of life, breathing is one of the most efficient, affordable, and effective ways of taking care of our health and wellbeing, reducing stress, and ensuring we are performing at our best, both physically and emotionally. Include some deep breathing daily, participate in regular yoga and or meditation and, remember, breath is life.
About the Author - Michelle Brass ND
With over 25 years of experience in the natural health industry, Michelle has dedicated her life to helping others embrace the therapeutic benefits of nature. Throughout her time as a health practitioner, she has used and recommended countless traditional and conventional treatments to her clients - as she believes an integrative approach to health and wellness is very important. Michelle is passionate about using and promoting essential oils and, in particular, Kunzea Oil, as she has seen them help thousands of people over the years. She knows that using essential oils in your daily life can help bring balance to the mind, body and soul. She is constantly trialling and testing new products with her loyal clients.
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- Ma X, Yue Z, et al. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070. Accessed 13 October 2020.
- Healthline. Breathe Deeper To Improve Posture https://www.healthline.com/health/breathe-deeper-improve-health-and-posture. Accessed 13 October 2020.
- Harvard Medical School. Take A Deep Breath. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/take-a-deep-breath. Accessed 13 October 2020.
- Healthline. What Causes Rapid, Shallow Breathing: https://www.healthline.com/health/rapid-shallow-breathing. Accessed 13 October 2020.
- Science Daily. Parasympathetic Nervous System. https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/parasympathetic_nervous_system.htm. Accessed 13 October 2020.
- Medical News Today. How To Get Rid Of Lactic Acid Build Up https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326521. Accessed 13 October 2020.
- Appelman D.R. Breathing for Singing. in The Science of Vocal Pedagogy: Theory and Application. 1967.
- Live Science. Sympathetic Nervous System. https://www.livescience.com/65446-sympathetic-nervous-system.html. Accessed 13 October 2020.