How often do you think about how you breathe? The general answer is not much, and that's o.k.! However, breathing has an amazing effect on our deep, primitive brain systems which are responsible for our "fight or flight" mechanism, and we can help to convince these systems that they don't have to be on constant high alert by focussing on breathing.
Fight, Flight or Freeze?
If you've never come across the phrase "Fight or Flight", put simply it means the response that is ingrained deep in our brain that dictates how we react to a perceived threat to us, and there are 3 elements to it. It helps us to determine if the threat is something we should run away from, or flight from, or whether we can stand up and fight the threat, but there is also another response commonly seen whereby we freeze under threat. This reaction helps our body gear itself up to respond by pushing blood into the muscles and the lungs to help us physically exert ourselves.
More commonly in our current environment, we provoke that fight or flight response from things that seem innocuous, like a deadline, a screaming child, a broken dishwasher or a crazy driver cutting us up in the car. These are all things our body reads as dangerous and stressful. If we are in these situations frequently, we often find ourselves "stressed", with tension in our muscles, hunched shoulders, tight chest muscles and snapping a lot! On a long-term scale, this higher state of alertness and overreaction on a daily basis can have negative impacts on not only our body's tissue health, but also on other systems such as hormonal balance from the excess stress it creates.
How do I check my breathing pattern?
One thing that commonly happens is we start to breathe into our chest, rather than our bellies. You can check whether you're a chest breather or a belly breather really easily: -
Place a hand over your chest and a hand over your belly button, and whilst sitting quietly just breathe normally, whilst noticing which hand moves more. The hand which moves more indicates where more of your in breath is focussing.
Rest and Digest
Breathing into our belly can do a whole manner of things to help "cheat" the system, as it helps to switch on a mode we have called "rest and digest". When we're resting, we reduce tension in our bodies which in turn can have a positive effect on the body, such as aiding digestion, elimination of waste and helps the body to restore itself. It's even been shown that this state can help with pain regulation, turning down the pain intensity signals.
We can help the body flip to this state, rather than fight or flight when we are stressed, by making the diaphragm muscle work, taking a deep breath in and focussing on breathing into our belly, known as diaphragm breathing.
How to Diaphragm Breathe
The easiest way to learn is to lay comfortably on your back; you can bend your knees up if it's more comfortable or put a pillow under your knees. Let your body relax onto whatever you're lying on.
As we did earlier, place a hand on your chest, and a hand on your belly button, and as you breathe in, visualise that breath passing by the hand on your chest, and swelling into your belly, making the hand on your belly rise upwards. Push that air you've breathed in right to the bottom of your lungs. It's perfectly ok to feel like you've got a big tummy whilst you're doing this, it will go back to normal as you breathe out! Be proud of your body! When you've breathed in normally, allow that breath to leave your lungs, just as it normally would, and repeat the visualisation again as you breathe in again.
Don't force your breathing, it should be restful and relaxing, and this can take a bit of practice! When you've conquered this lying down, (and it's a great thing to do to help you get to sleep a little better), try it sitting and standing. There's nowhere you can't do this, from sitting on the beach to standing in a queue!
In time, you'll instinctively learn that you don't need to use your hands to help you determine how you're breathing. Check in on your body through the day and see if you've changed from belly to chest again, does it correspond with your stress levels? If you find yourself getting stressed, go back to your practiced, gentle diaphragm breathing and you should find you see things a little clearer.