The Art of Breathing Well

Often in times of stress, anxiety, agitation, or anger, we are advised to “take a deep breath”, but this is only effective if we complete the full cycle of a breath by paying attention to both inhalation and exhalation.

Fortunately for most of us, breathing is a function that doesn’t require any thought or conscious intervention. The control centre for breathing is located at the bottom of our brain near the spinal cord and is called the medulla oblongata. It manages and regulates involuntary functions that keep us alive, including essential survival tasks such as keeping our hearts beating, regulating blood pressure, and even vomiting.

When we inhale we take in oxygen which our bodies need to produce energy. This process leaves behind a gas called carbon dioxide. Our carbon dioxide production works in the same way that a car running on petrol leaves behind carbon dioxide fumes. To ensure optimal functioning, we must remove this carbon dioxide from our bodies properly and we do this through effective exhaling.

The medulla’s respiratory centre is home to receptors that detect when levels of carbon dioxide are too high in the blood. All of this happens automatically, so even when you are sleeping the muscles responsible for inhaling and exhaling still operate without you controlling them. For as long as you’re living, your brain will control the flow of air and regulate your levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

But just because breathing is an involuntary function doesn’t mean we always do a good job or are able to control it. For example, taking in multiple deep breaths puts us at risk of taking on too much oxygen, which in turn can increase feelings of anxiety. You are essentially telling your brain to expect some type of conflict, which could lead us to holding our breath for longer periods of time.
It’s a balancing act. We need our medulla oblongata to regulate good levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our systems. If our carbon dioxide levels are too high, we may start to get a headache and feel tired, or more severe symptoms could occur such as difficulty breathing, respiratory failure, seizure, and even coma can occur. If however our carbon dioxide levels get too low, we may start to hyperventilate. This may make you feel light-headed, dizzy, and weak. You may also have a fast heartbeat, numbness or tingling in the arms, hands or feet, problems sleeping, and chest pains.

Any of this sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone. A staggering 12% of the population suffers from hyperventilation, or what is also known as over breathing.

So how can we help ourselves, what can we consciously do to ensure good breathing.

Take a moment to note what is happening with your breathing right now. Is it deep or shallow, is it your diaphragm or chest rising and falling, are you breathing through your mouth or nose.

Let’s start with how you are taking in oxygen. It’s very common for us to breath through our mouth, but mouth breathing is essentially an emergency function. To your brain, you are justifying the emergency response. Your sympathetic nervous system (a network of nerves that helps your body activate its “fight-or-flight” response. This system’s activity increases when you’re stressed, in danger or physically active) will remain in high gear until your body has an indication that the threat has passed.

You can calm this sympathetic response, the rapid heart rate, and breathing difficulties, by activating your parasympathetic nervous system (the balance to our sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for regulating bodily functions, conserving energy and relaxing or reduce your body’s activities). The parasympathetic nervous system response is like switching on an emergency brake to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, decrease your muscle tension, and restore your breathing back to its pre-alerted, calm state.

Here are a few key things to remember when you want to activate your parasympathetic nervous system through breath work:

Breath through your nose; this will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. Your nose also acts as a natural filter. When you breath in through your nostrils the air gets warmed and moistened, and tiny hairs in the nose filter out dust and other particles, cleaning the air as you inhale.

Breath into your diaphragm; Diaphragmatic breathing involves breathing deep into the stomach and fully engaging the diaphragm. This strengthens the diaphragm and helps the lungs work more efficiently. It may also promote a feeling of calm or relaxation.
Breath out longer than you breath in; This can take some practice, but it will help ensure we are not falling into the trap of over breathing.

Here is an easy exercise to build into your daily routine*

Do this for 10 minutes when you wake up and again before you go to sleep.

  1. Lie on your back, raise your arms above your head (behind you).
  2. Slowly tense and release each part of your body from your feet up to your eyes. Holding each tension for 5 seconds.
  3. Set your airways to the optimum place for the exercise. To do this, say a word that ends in “N” for example, Nelson. Your tongue and lips should fall into the perfect place for good slow nose breathing.
  4. Breath in through your nose, and count to 5
  5. As you do this watch your diaphragm rise up high (not your chest)
  6. Breath out through your nose, and count to 6
  7. Watch your diaphragm fall (your chest should not be moving)
  8. Repeat this for 10 minutes

It can help to have a light weight (such as a wheat pack) across your torso to provide a bit or resistance and control during this exercise.

This can be done during the day sitting at your desk (without the arms or you might look a little weird), before a presentation, meeting or anytime you start to feel any signs of stress, anxiety, agitation, or anger.

As we get into our busy days, we can often “forget” to breath. Placing a few reminder around the place such as a simple dot sticker, or post it note can help install reminders until it becomes a good habit. Try putting your chosen reminder on the bathroom mirror, fridge, dash of the car, computer screen and so forth.

There are many different breathing exercises that can be practiced to help manage healthy breathing patterns, but if you are struggling, or worried about your breathing due to stress, anxiety, long covid or even asthma, please seek
professional help.

Breathing Works is a good place to start, they have years of experience and a team of amazing therapists that will be able to help you.

*Please ensure you seek medical advice from a professional or your GP before undertaking any breathing exercises such as the suggested one in this article.

This is Part 2 of a four-part series on Daily Functioning.

Check out our Other Blogs:

xmas holiday

Build up to the Christmas holidays

The lead up to Christmas can be an exceptionally stressful time in the building industry. There is mounting pressure to complete projects, increased demands from clients, and expectation to do longer days and weekend work.

people connecting

The Power of Connection

Over the last three editions, we looked at some of the key elements to daily functioning, sleep, breathing and physical care. So, what else is there? What brings all this together and gives it purpose? Connection.

physical care

The Fundamentals of Physical Care

Welcome to part three of our four-part journey on daily functioning. In the previous two Inhouse magazine editions we talked about the importance of a good night’s sleep and how to create good breathing habits.

breathing well

The Art of Breathing Well

Often in times of stress, anxiety, agitation, or anger, we are advised to “take a deep breath”, but this is only effective if we complete the full cycle of a breath by paying attention to both inhalation and exhalation.