All I Need Is The Air That I Breathe – Learn to breathe again
Alleviating stress can be a complicated process but one of the most straightforward approaches is down to you – you just teach yourself to breathe properly.
As we get stressed and tense we tend to curl in on ourselves, our shoulders slump forward and we tend to take short, quick breaths that do not expand our lungs. For our lungs to expand we need to sit up straight with our shoulders pinned back and we need to breathe in to expand our lungs to full volume. Otherwise, we can cause oxygen deprivation which can itself lead to symptoms that mimic stress and can leave us lacking in energy, lethargic and tired.
When we are stressed we can stop breathing or we hold our breath and then end up feeling that we cannot breathe and that our throat is tightening. We can end up taking short gasps or long sighs to try to get our breathing back into some type of rhythm. It is very unpleasant not being able to breathe properly and it can trigger panic thoughts or thoughts that one is going to choke, suffocate or die.
Learning to breathe properly is a very powerful skill. It is one of the key factors in relaxation exercises and in mindfulness. It will help you to keep the tension out of your body. It can also help in crisis situations when you become overwhelmed or are about to enter a stressful situation.
The fact is that many of us have forgotten how to breathe properly. There are many techniques around and you only need one. My patients tell me that the following technique is easy and works for them.
Get comfortably seated somewhere where your back will be supported. Sit back and up as straight as you can, drop your shoulders back, place your feet on ground, hands on your tummy. This position will feel strange at the start. Breathe in to the count of one making sure you feel your tummy expand; this will help the muscle at the bottom of your lungs to move up and down.
This muscle is your diaphragm and rests between your chest and abdomen. You may see reference to ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ – this is our breathing pattern when we are relaxed, you can see babies or animals stretched in the sun breathing this way, slow and deep.
Now breathe out to the count of one. Repeat twice and then increase the length of the breath by breathing in to the count of two and out to the count of two. Repeat twice and continue breathing in and out until you can do it to the count of five. Stay breathing to the count of five in and the count of five out. Feel the gentle wave-like movement in your tummy.
This will feel strange at first and you may have to do it a few times before it feels comfortable. You are now expanding your lungs to full capacity, allowing oxygen to fill your bloodstream. This slows your heart and brings a sense of calm. Feel the slowness of the breathing, feel the tension leaving your body.
When we are stressed we do not use our full lung capacity, instead we take short rapid intakes of breath from the top of our lungs, in the area around our shoulders, and this can send us into an oxygen-deprived state.
This feels very uncomfortable; we feel nauseous, light-headed, dizzy, faint, sweaty, and hot and cold.
One of the most important things in life is learning to breathe properly. Now you know the technique you can do it anywhere and anytime: before a meeting, on the bus, in the car at traffic lights, picking up the children from school, before an interview, first thing in the morning to calm any worry about the day ahead or last thing at night to slow the worry thoughts and help induce sleep.
Professor Abbie Lane