Shallow breathing can make us feel confused and more stressed
It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds! Emma Winterschladen discovers that learning how to breathe ‘consciously’ can make us calmer, more focused – and even help us sleep better
I only began to notice my breathing when it started to go wrong.
It’s something that we all do without thinking – on average we take between 17,000 and 23,000 breaths a day. But during the second week of lockdown, I developed a strange, relentless sigh.
At first it was no more than an occasional deep breath in and an audible puff out. But as the months passed, I found myself desperately gulping air numerous times a day – as if I couldn’t get enough into my lungs – then expelling it with a heavy sigh.
Five months on and my perpetual sigh, typified by its dramatically deep breath (which my partner Tom calls ‘incredibly annoying’) is as familiar to me as my face mask. I’d just about resigned myself to the fact it was now part of my daily life when a friend recommended I try breath work.
If you’ve done yoga, you’ve probably done breath work. We’ve been controlling our breath in the name of healing for centuries. It’s the only part of our autonomic nervous system (which controls body functions such as digestion and heart rate) we can consciously manipulate, be it through talking, singing or, as I’d come to learn, through breath work.
Also known as conscious breathing, it’s the practice of paying attention to and controlling the way you inhale and exhale. Normally led by an expert practitioner, it can help with various issues, from easing anxiety (the NHS promotes breathing techniques to tackle stress) to aiding mental clarity, managing pain, sleeping better or, in my case, reducing your need to sigh 20 times a day. Breathing techniques are used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and alongside cognitive behavioural therapy.
So it’s no surprise that ‘breath work facilitators’ like Alice Moore are in demand. Alice, the founder of holistic health company Kyushi Wellness, is now holding her guided sessions online for individuals and groups.
We begin with a Zoom consultation. Alice explains that sighing can be a good thing – it helps preserve our lung function – but doing so excessively suggests I wasn’t breathing properly. ‘We’re living in a really anxious time and when our body feels threatened, our fight-or-flight response is activated and this can result in shallow breathing from our chest, rather than our belly.’
‘But I don’t feel that anxious!’ I tell her. Apparently, anxiety doesn’t always show up how we think it might, and can exist in the body in a way we may not even be aware of. Alice instructs me to lie down with my laptop camera positioned so she can see my belly moving up and down. We begin with short, rapid ‘in, in, out’ breaths through the mouth. It feels unnatural and within minutes my limbs are flooded by an intense tingling sensation – scientifically known as ‘tetany’ – caused by acute hyperventilation.
Then something shifts. I feel like I am floating, no longer aware of my breathing, which I later discover has slowed right down. I’m in a dreamlike state of deep peace – then from the pit of my stomach erupts a groundswell of emotion. I let out a howl and sobs rise up and out of my throat. When it’s over I lie on the bed calm, confused, depleted. Immediately I feel my need to sigh reduce. My body feels lighter and relaxed in a way it hasn’t been since before lockdown. Alice explains that although we experience many micro-stresses day to day we may not realise the extent to which they affect us. Though we might not give much weight to these, they can still put the body and brain in a state of stress. By engaging in conscious breathing we stimulate our vagus nerve (which runs from the brain to the abdomen), triggering a response from the parasympathetic nervous system. This acts like a brake and calms down the body, decreasing respiration and heart rate and increasing digestion so the body can rest, relax and repair.
Alice recommends only doing active breath work once a week, and to ideally do it guided, through a session, podcast or app. She gives me prescribed breathing techniques to practise every day and suggests starting gently to avoid inducing hyperventilation.
In the weeks after my session, I’m aware of increased concentration when writing and worrying less about my emails. I’m able to switch off from work in the evenings, ready for sleep. By my second session with Alice, after two weeks of daily breathing exercises, I’m able to transition into the ‘therapeutic zone’ – the state between consciousness and unconsciousness – more easily. It’s something you might be aware of just before you fall asleep or as you wake up. You can also access it through deep meditation and breath work, allowing you to tap into, and begin to process subconscious feelings and thoughts.
And as for the sigh? It’s less frequent, less loud and certainly less dramatic – much to Tom’s relief.
The power to heal
With our faces often covered by a mask, breathing well is more important than ever. Being conscious of our breathing habits helps respiratory systems work more efficiently in getting air into the lungs, explains Dr Andy Whittamore, clinical lead at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation. The level of oxygen in our body is vital to the function of every cell and organ. Breathing better can also help regulate emotions, stress levels and heart rate. ‘When we’re anxious, we can breathe too fast or too shallow,’ says Dr Whittamore. ‘This can accentuate the feeling of breathlessness and lead to a build-up of carbon dioxide which may make us feel confused and more stressed.’ It’s not about perfection, just reconnecting to our breath, to manage our intake of oxygen and help regain control.
Inhale, exhale… properly
Breath work practitioner Alice Moore shows you how
Alternate nostril breathing Begin each day with this mindful breathing practice to help you transition out of sleep feeling calm and clear-headed.
Sit up comfortably in bed or on the floor with your legs crossed. Place your left hand on your left knee and lift up your right hand. Exhale all air from your lungs then gently close the left nostril with your third finger. Inhale through the right nostril then close that nostril with your thumb and exhale through your left nostril. Then inhale through the left nostril and repeat the cycle for five minutes. Always finish with an exhale on the left side.
THROUGHOUT THE DAY
The 5-5-3 method
When done regularly, this simple technique will help you breathe better, as well as regulating your nervous system and stress levels. Aim for three times a day, every day, ideally before eating. Do it while making tea or showering.
Breathe in through the nose for five seconds and out through the mouth for five seconds. Repeat this for five minutes.
Also called box breathing, 4 x 4 breathing or four-part breath, this is often used to bring people down from a panic attack (replacing the brown paper bag method). Use it if you feel stressed or anxious during the day.
Find something square, such as a picture frame, to help visualise your breaths and focus on the moment. The technique is so named because each repetition of it has four parts, like a box. Start by slowly exhaling all of your air out, then inhale for four seconds. At the top of your breath, hold for four seconds, then exhale through your mouth for four seconds. At the bottom of your breath, hold for a final four seconds. Repeat as needed until you feel calm.
Soft Belly Breathing
Also known as abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, this can help reduce tension in the neck and shoulders. It can also prepare you for sleep.
Sit or lie somewhere comfortable. If sitting, make sure your knees are bent, your back is relatively straight and your head, neck and shoulders are relaxed. If lying, bend your knees up. Place your hands on your belly, with your thumbs at the navel and your fingertips just below. Allow the belly to expand under your fingertips on the inhale and contract on the exhale. Picture a wave: it rises as the belly does and returns to the ocean as you breathe out.
For more information or to book a session with Alice Moore, visit kyushiwellness.com