The importance of how we breathe and our breathing technique has gained increased public attention over recent years. There’s now overwhelming scientific support for the adoption of correct breathing technique. Increased rates of dysfunctional breathing, a phenomenon observed in most Western nations, is a matter of concern for those within the medical community.
What is dysfunctional breathing?
Dysfunctional breathing is defined as abnormal respiratory patterns, most often related to over-breathing, upper chest breathing, or breathing through the mouth.
Dysfunctional breathing is associated with various mental states, including stress, anxiety, depression and also impacts on emotional regulation ability. In his New York Times bestseller, James Nestor remarked of this phenomenon: “Those with the worst anxieties consistently suffer from the worst breathing habits”.
Upper chest breathing, a dysfunctional way of breathing in which you breathe too fast, too shallow, and too high in the chest remains pervasive across many sections of the population. This is commonly known as hyperventilation and is one of the earliest physical signs of anxiety.
Slow controlled breathing has been used throughout history as an effective relaxation tool to manage stress and anxiety. It has been shown that changing the rhythm of your breathing can signal relaxation, slowing your heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system which controls our capacity to move into a state of rest and enhance a sense of calm.
A good way of looking at this process is to use a real-life example:
James, a final year high school student, sought my assistance to manage his experience of stress and anxiety during exams. He described his stress response as including a rapid heart rate, fast shallow breathing and increased sweating.
James becomes aware of these changes and this awareness often results in further anxiety. Importantly, James’ awareness of an increased heart rate does not automatically result in slowing his heartbeat.
By learning to focus on his breath and slow it down, James has discovered how to actively calm himself and normalise his heart rate. James has essentially discovered that slowing down the breathing rhythm has positively influenced a number of bodily functions including the autonomic, central brain, and parasympathetic systems.
The impact of breath on the body
The body’s nervous system regulates our involuntary actions such as heart rate and digestion. These actions are split into two parts. Your sympathetic nervous system controls your fight or flight response, and your parasympathetic nervous system, as previously noted, controls your rest and relax response.
Stress and anxiety simply indicate our body is in a state of fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system). The quickest and most effective way to reduce sympathetic nervous system activation is through slow, gentle, breathing.
Unfortunately, it’s not a natural bodily response to slow one’s breathing during a period of stress or anxiety. In fact, our brain has developed over thousands of years to respond by doing the opposite: making our breathing rate increase under perceived threat or exposure to stressful circumstances.
But, as identified in the case of James above, breathing becomes such a powerful tool because it is something that each of us can control. Research suggests that breathing at a rate of six breaths per minute is optimal when attempting to move to a state of calm. At this rate there appears to be a positive feedback loop between the heart, brain, and the lungs.
Many people question the reasons why dysfunctional breathing habits such as hyperventilation have become so common.
There are many causes of hyperventilation and they are often interrelated. But, it is generally accepted that changes to our lifestyles, such as moving less and eating more, are critical factors.
Other important changes to our breathing occur when we open an email or engage in endless scrolling on social media. In an article published in 2008, Linda Stone coined the phrase ‘e-mail apnoea’ to describe how our breathing changes in response to our interaction with technology.
Subsequent studies have also shown the connection between the use of social media and increasing anxiety within adolescents. In cases where someone is experiencing stress, or anxiety, they will almost certainly experience dysfunctional breathing.
Whatever the causes of our drift into dysfunctional breathing habits, the problem is pervasive. Most clients in therapy display some form of breathing dysfunction, most notably hyperventilation.
My experience as a psychologist, in this respect, is not unusual. It remains overwhelmingly common that psychologists and other mental health professionals will use conscious breathing training as a frontline tool for the management of many psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression.
While the number of breathing techniques and methods available can seem confusing and at times contradictory, there is consensus on the benefits of attempting to achieve six breaths per minute. As James Nestor stated in his New York Times bestseller:
“The perfect breath is this: Breathe in for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 litres of air.”
bobi for better breathing
bobi helps facilitate the habit of better breathing and is a great device to help children ground and create a positive emotional response during times of stress or anxiety. For more information on bobi, contact us online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Refer: Streeter et al., 2012; Brown et al., 2013). In Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, Garbella E, Menicucci D, Neri B, Gemignani A. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018 Sep 7;12:353. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353. PMID: 30245619; PMCID: PMC6137615.
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