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Take a Deep Breath for your Mental Health

We take about 17,000 breaths each day, usually without giving the process much thought. However, just because you breathe automatically, doesn’t mean that you’re doing it effectively.  In fact, you may not be enjoying all of its benefits. You may also have developed some unhealthy habits that you’re probably not even aware of, such as shallow and irregular breathing. You may even be holding your breath when you text! (yes, it’s a thing!)  Due to any number of factors, very few people breathe to their full potential. In fact, a staggering 80% of people are not breathing properly. What is happening here?  Well, let’s break it down.  

What could be messing up your breathing?

  • Do you sit for work?
  • Do you wear compression garments, belts, support pantyhose?
  • Do you live with any type of fear, anxiety or worry?
  • Do you have poor posture?
  • Are you over 29?  
  • Have you had pneumonia or bronchitis?
  • Do you smoke or live with a smoker?
  • Do you or have you lived in a city with high levels of smog or pollution?
  • Do you snore or have a deviated septum?
  • Have you had back, shoulder or neck injuries?
  • Are you stressed?

If you answered yes, to any these, your breathing is likely impaired.  Now let’s talk about that last question-stress. Most of us have way too much of it in our lives.  Our lives are often fast paced, with many pressures and demands.  Unfortunately, unless we are making efforts to regularly manage our stress levels, our bodies and nervous systems start to develop habitual stress responses.  When this happens, our sympathetic nervous system becomes overactive and stays in a constant state of fight or flight.  This can affect us both emotionally and physically, AND it can actually affect the way we breathe.  When you’re in a stressful situation, have you noticed that are contracting your muscles? This restricts your breathing. 

Whatever happens in your mind and body influences your breathing.  They are intimately connected.  However, how you breathe also has a direct impact on how you feel! When you breathe deeply and slowly, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reverses the stress response in your body. Deep breathing stimulates the main nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system (called the vagus nerve), which slows down your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and essentially calming your body and mind. Amazing right?

Now that we have fully discovered how important the breath can be, how can we breathe better?  First and foremost, we need to bring awareness to our breath. You now have an opportunity to become more attentive to your breath.   Let’s try this exercise right now.  Close your eyes.  Just follow your breath. Don’t try to change it. When your body wants to breathe in, breathe in.  When your body wants to breathe out, breathe out.  Simply allow it to happen. Allow any pauses between your exhalations and inhalations.   Just observe whatever happens as it happens.

What did you notice?

Is your breath moving down into your belly or staying high up in your chest?

Is your breathing tight or relaxed?

Do you notice any pauses between your inhalations and exhalations?

Does your in-breath and out-breath take the same amount of time?

Now that you have spent some time watching your own unique way of bringing breath into your body, let’s practice a deep breathing exercise called diaphragmatic breathing (AKA belly breathing). It’s very simple, and requires just a few steps:

1. Sit comfortably, with your knees bent.  Your shoulders, head and neck are relaxed and your spine is tall.

2. Place one hand high up on your chest under the collarbone and one on your belly below your navel.

2. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your belly moves out against your lower hand. You should feel your bottom hand moving away from your spine. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.

3.  Let your belly fall inward as you exhale.  

4. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for 10-20 minutes.  

This may feel awkward at first as your body may be unaccustomed to breathing this way.  Keep practicing and it will get easier.   You will notice that this type of belly breathing calms your nervous system.  And a calm nervous system means a calm mind. 

So the next time you are feeling stressed, Take a Deep Breath! 

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