Breathing functionally as part of your stress management toolkit can pay dividends for your physical wellness and reduce your stress load, says Joel Jelen.
It’s more widely recognised than ever before that you cannot separate the physical from the mental when it comes to health and well-being. This was never more apparent given all the research that was publicised during the early onset of the pandemic highlighting the importance of for example, exercise and its impact on the state of our mental well-being.
Whilst there are now many excellent resources online, in print and broadcast highlighting the different stress management tools at our disposal to help with physical stress, my concern is the lack of attention on breathing education and its role in helping us cope with times of stress, sometimes prolonged. Hyperventilation or overbreathing is now a hidden epidemic in Western populations.
It’s reasonable that little regard is paid to an area of our health and daily life when we can take it for granted. Breathing normally or functionally for me is the foundation of good health and more conventional medical research now supports this. This has been at the heart of both functional medicine and complementary medicine for many years. Certainly the last three decades. Given this, how can improving your breathing impact your physical health and reduce your stress load on a daily basis?
Given that ‘normal’ functional breathing is light, quiet, effortless, soft, through the nose, tummy-based, rhythmic and gently paused on the exhale, is this you? If it isn’t and you for example mouth breathe, have audible breathing during rest, sigh regularly, sniff regularly, and you take habitual big breaths, this will increase your stress load. Just performing a few of these ‘habits’ during a day will impact your physical health, commonly without you realising.
Large breaths prior to talking for example and lots of upper chest and visible movement can send a cascade of stress through your system because basically you are operating on fight or flight when you do some or all of the above. This affects your nervous system, brain function and muscle function…to the obvious detriment of your physical health. Small incremental changes in how you physically breathe can make a big difference in your productivity both in work and life. I’ve shared breathing education around this mostly within two scenarios (aside from one to one consults) – namely within the sporting arena and wellbeing in the workplace workshops.
Whilst exercise is huge for reducing physical stress, it can do the opposite if you disregard how you breathe whilst performing. For example, if you enjoy resistance training, it’s likely you’ll have some knowledge of how to breathe when lifting wights. I’ve worked with many personal trainers over the last 4 years helping them understand the Buteyko method and how this breathing philosophy reduces impact and stress on the joints and strain/stress on the heart. From observations in countless visits to gyms, it’s very common for people to lift a weight on the inhale. This merely spikes blood pressure, denies oxygen to the cells and over time can cause vertigo and muscular injuries. A body builder client of mine developed hyperventilation syndrome as a result of her intense training without proper guidance on how to breathe. Always lift weights in the pause to increase your range of movement by typically 20%…this will also reduce your weight load by 20%.
Of course, many people dislike gyms but everybody carries out a form of resistance training daily by lifting their own weight when they e.g. get out of a seat. Try moving off a chair in the pause at the end of an exhale and see how much easier it is on your joints. You’re unlikely to want to make their groaning noise as you get up too!
Many of us know that being seated for long periods is bad for our physical heath with some studies showing it’s akin to smoking!
Given the focus here on breathing, common complaints now more regularly attributed to breathing dysfunction include tension in the neck and shoulder girdle. This is caused by chest and mouth breathing. It was formerly just blamed on poor posture without reference to breathing function.
How you breathe is on the spectrum of posture. Forward head posture for example, encourages chest breathing. Tongue posture is also an influence on whether we breathe correctly for optimal health. If your tongue doesn’t rest on your palate whilst typing away with the tip of the tongue touching behind the top teeth, you will experience physical stress as a result. Myofunctional therapy can help you explore more about this phenomenon.
Breathing dysfunctionally can change your mood too and we all feel the physical stress when that happens. There are many other daily factors that impact our physical health through our breathing. Overeating increases your breathing rate. Excessive talking also increases your breathing rate as does believe it or not, high temperatures in your home.
I’ve never yet met anyone who was mentally and physically calm with a higher breathing rate than required.
All this needs to be considered and that’s without mentioning specific health conditions that interfere with functional breathing such as asthma and anxiety. In view of this, what coping mechanisms does breathing education as a stress management tool
offer to help you through stress awareness month?
In my experience, the best way to begin is to look at measuring your breathing using what i call the control pause. This is basically a comfortable breath hold in which you take a small, silent breath, breathing in through your nose, allow a small silent breath out through your nose and then hold your nose with your fingers preventing air from entering your lungs. Time the number of seconds until you feel the first distinct desire to breathe in.
Normal or functional breathers can perform this for at least 40 seconds. Buteyko breathing techniques like many small breath holds can help you reach that 40 second goal, with commitment. Switch to and maintain nasal breathing at all times. This increases oxygen, C02 and nitric oxide intake which can maximise your breathing function. The exception is during excessive physical exercise like running but alternate between mouth and nose breathing to reduce any potential physical stress.
Stop big breathing. The all too common ‘take a deep breath’ is often a fallacy because people hunch their shoulders, open their mouth and from their chest, take that breath. It feels good because it relaxes your thoracic nerve but can merely add to the circle of hyperventilation if you have all the other bad habits. The correct way without creating physical stress is to belly breathe and nose breathe. It should be gentle and silent like a healthy baby.
Other tips to reduce your physical stress include eliminating sighing, sniffing, big yawns and overthinking! You can eradicate negative thoughts by focusing on the breath. Use carbonated water when enduring a talkative day to replace the lost CO2 which is both an energy driver and can also have a huge impact on how you feel physically when you have depleted CO2.
When using technology, focus on the breath during laptop/mobile phone use to avoid that muscular tension. Regarding sleep, put your brain to bed two hours before yourself to enable your system to relax enough and recharge correctly. Think of sleep as an event and always sleep with your mouth closed. If you don’t, you’ll feel the physical impact and stress daily.
Lastly and perhaps poignantly, practice Buteyko breathing exercises to reduce your breathing pattern to normal.
You can find more details here.