Have you ever been worked up over something and had someone tell you to just breathe? In the heat of the moment, it may feel a little annoying to have people suggesting something you do without even thinking about it, but that saying rings true. Breathing really does help to calm you down. When your nervous system shifts into fight or flight, which is your sympathetic nervous system activating, your heart rate increases, and your breathing becomes more rapid. In a life-threatening situation, this reaction is appropriate, but in normal everyday life, this reaction comes from a state of dysregulation. The way in which we breathe can bring us back to physical and emotional regulation, if done correctly.
However, most of us actually don’t breathe correctly. The first sign you may be breathing incorrectly, is if you breathe through your mouth. Using the mouth to breathe is appropriate when you’re out of breath from working out and need to take in more oxygen, but your normal breathing should all be done through your nose. Mouth breathing can cause a variety of health issues, including asthma, tooth decay, snoring, and jaw abnormalities. Nose breathing, on the other hand, filters and humidifies the air coming in, improves quality of sleep, and allows for the production of nitric oxide, which opens up blood vessels for better circulation.
Many people also breathe too fast. A normal breathing rate for an adult is 8-12 breaths per minute, but most of us are actually breathing much faster than that. Fast breathing can be tied to stress, anxiety, and nervous system dysregulation. Many ancient yoga teachers even associated the rate of breathing with age. They believed that your age was equivalent to the number of breaths you took throughout your life. If you weren’t convinced that you needed to fix your breathing before, I bet that just peaked your interest. Slowing down our breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system to calm that stress and anxiety. Feel like you may be breathing too quickly? Try a few rounds of slow, controlled breathing to calm your nerves.
The third sign that you may be breathing incorrectly is if you breathe mainly through your chest and shoulders. These are your intercostal and accessory muscles, which are both involved in breathing. However, they should not be taking the lead. In order to breathe correctly, you should be breathing through your diaphragm. Your diaphragm is located under and slightly behind your rib cage. When this muscle is properly engaged in breathing, your stomach expands on the inhale and contracts on the exhale. Breathing like this can help to reduce stress levels, conserve energy, reduce blood pressure, and lower your heart rate.
If you breathe in any of the incorrect ways mentioned above, know that you aren’t alone. There are many ways you can take it into your own hands to correct your breathing (just be sure to consult with a medical professional if you have any sort of respiratory concerns). Some ways to work on your breathing include: Practicing breathing exercises such as 4:8 breathing, box breathing, balance breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and triangle breathing a few times per day can help to train your body to breathe correctly. You can also hire a breathing coach or breathwork facilitator to help you learn to breathe correctly. These individuals will work with you weekly to introduce breathwork practices into your daily life. So the next time someone tells you to just breathe, you’ll know exactly what they mean, and the advice may actually help.