Breathing Properly: Its Impact on Stress & Anxiety
It’s a common practice today to place significant emphasis on belly breath, or more appropriately termed “diaphragmatic breathing”. Much of this focus is the result of the popularization of yoga. In and of itself it’s a great practice to ensure that your [thoracic] diaphragm is moving well and aiding in a natural breathing cycle, but it’s only one part of the puzzle.
Our collective focus has shifted in this direction because far too many people in our modern society can only breathe comfortably into their ribcage, and cannot direct their breathing with any significant diaphragmatic breathing.
The problem is we’ve jumped to the other end of the spectrum and now I am commonly seeing patients with very limited ability to perform costal breathing.
Instead we should be stepping back to look at breathing holistically. Our breathing apparatus in its entirety includes our nasal passages, our nasopharynx, larynx, ribcage, diaphragm and all the surrounding musculature. Therefore focusing on one particular element of that to the exclusion of others leads to imbalance.
Why is breathing properly important?
Our culture is more stressed and anxious than ever before. The pressures placed on us and those that we place on ourselves have driven us into lives of greater anxiety. It just so happens that one of the best drug-free methods of managing anxiety and stress is proper breathing.
Effective breathing practices are wonderful additions to any stress-management toolkit.
- provide a point of focus (helping to calm the mind and drive attention)
- they encourage a stronger body-awareness (bringing your mind out of the story and into your body, grounding it in sensation)
- and they help to re-establish the proper oxygen saturation for the blood (allowing the systems of the body to do their jobs properly without being stressed due to lack of resources)
Additionally, proper breathing can:
- reduce intercostal atrophy
- reduce tension throughout the muscles that move the breathing apparatus
- reduce muscle pain, caused from immobility
- improve posture!
A little experiment, if you will.
Take the deepest possible breath you can…. Then do it one more time…. When you do this, let your breath move your body by itself. Notice how you automatically sit up taller and achieve better posture? Yes, a full breath that utilizes the full breathing apparatus helps you develop better posture. Posture is also incredibly important in stress and anxiety management. It’s a cyclical relationship between poor posture and stress/anxiety. Having proper breathing tools, helps us to interfere with that cycle.
In the training process, it’s important to first identify where your restrictions are, so that you can then increase the amount of focus you have there. Try experiment number 2, to determine areas of restriction in your breath (you’ll need a partner):
- Lie supine (on your back) and get someone to gently rest one or both hands on your chest, and supply a portion of body weight gradually, like the picture on the right. If you find it very difficult to breathe, then chances are you’re more of a costal breather and your diaphragm could use some more training.
- Lie prone (on your front) and have someone gently apply some pressure to your low back (above the pelvis, below the ribs and to the side of the spine), just as demonstrated in the picture here. If you find that this greatly restricts the amount of air you can breathe, then we have the opposite answer and you’ll need to workout your intercostals a little more.
So what do we do with this information?
The best practice for breathing is called 3-part breath. The above experiment helps you identify where a little more time needs to be spent.
3-Part Breath: The Method
Gradually inhale so that the movement from your breath occurs in the lower abdomen, then incrementally include the lower rib cage, and then complete the breath by expanding the upper rib cage. Then reverse down through those three parts, gradually emptying the breath.
I also find it to be a beneficial practice to reverse the process entirely – starting with your upper chest, then lower rib cage and then belly last. It’s always good to change it up and you may notice one challenges you more than the other (do that one more time…).
Here’s to happy, full breathing and all the postural, stress-reducing , anxiety-lowering and tension-eliminating benefits it provides!