Time spent practising breathing will repay dividends in lowered stress levels. Photo: Getty
This morning my five-year-old daughter was comforting her little brother, who had just tripped over the new truck he received for his 2nd birthday. His joy and elation had quickly turned to tears and two-year-old tragedy after his stack. Then Miss Five, in a calm and soothing voice said “just stop and breathe. It’ll be OK, little man, just stop and breathe”. Two minutes later he was manoeuvring his truck around the lounge room once more.
If a young child can calm her brother with four simple words, what benefit could “just stop and breathe” possibly hold for the busy executive?
Breathing and physiology
For thousands of years, humans have understood breathing has a powerful influence over our physiological and psychological wellbeing. But many people still find it difficult to understand the link between breathing and its impact on our body’s physiology and stress levels.
Research has shown the way we breathe has a powerful effect on how stressed we feel. When we feel stressed, one of the physiological changes that occurs is activation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight response) and an immediate increase in respiration switching from slow, abdominal breathing to faster, shallower, chest breathing.
This is a normal and healthy response in the short-term. If we are constantly triggering the sympathetic nervous system throughout the day however, we begin to habitually take shorter, shallower breaths with our upper chest, even though the stress may have passed.
The danger is that this style of breathing sends signals to the brain that we are under stress when the reality is, it may not really be under stress at all.
Average respiratory rates
The first sign of life in a newborn baby is breath. The average adult will take in approximately 20,000 breaths a day. The number of breaths we take per minute is called respiratory rate. You can work out your respiratory rate by counting the amount of breaths per minute, or bpm. Compare your self to the following:
Newborn baby: 44bpm
Older children: 16-25bpm
Relaxed adults: 8-12bpm
Elite athlete during exercise: 60-70bpm
Types of breathing
1.Relaxed diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is a slow, calm style of breathing controlled by a rhythmic contraction and expansion of the diaphragm. When you observe a child or animal (or if you want to be a little creepier, watch your partner while they are sleeping tonight – all in the name of research, of course) that is relaxed and happy, you will see their abdomen (belly button) moves out when they inhale and it deflates when they exhale. There is very little movement in their chest. Studies have shown that practicing this style of diaphragmatic breathing reduces muscle tension and anxiety levels within 60 seconds. Slow, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system or what is commonly referred to as the relaxation response (the exact opposite of what happens with the stress response).
2. Stressed chest breathing
Stressed thoracic or chest breathing involves very little movement in the abdomen and it is predominantly the chest that moves when we breathe in and out. This results in a shallower, faster breath.
Again, observe a child who is distressed or crying. When a child is upset, their breathing switches from slow, diaphragmatic breathing to fast and shallow breathing. Chest breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system.
While breathing is controlled mainly through the Autonomic Nervous System, we can voluntarily influence our breathing and help switch off the stress response through changing our breathing style from fast, shallow chest breathing to slow and deep diaphragmatic breathing.
Doing this sends signals to the brain that the threat is over and the parasympathetic part of the Autonomic Nervous System starts to reverse the biochemical and physiological changes brought about by the stress response.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a skill and when performed correctly, is effective in reducing stress levels. It is physically impossible for humans to be relaxed and stressed at the same time.
How to check for diaphragmatic breathing:
1. Lie down on the bed or on a lounge, place one hand (palm face down) on your chest and place the other hand (palm face down) on your abdomen (just below your ribcage).
2. Breathe normally and notice which hand is moving most, ie. the abdominal hand or the chest hand.
3. If the hand on your abdomen is moving and the hand on your upper chest is still, you are using your diaphragm and breathing correctly.
4. If your upper chest hand is moving more than the hand on your abdomen, then you are breathing mainly with your chest and this is a form of stressful breathing.
5. Checking on a regular basis that you are activating diaphragmatic breathing will ensure the majority of your breathing is relaxed abdominal breathing.
6. You may initially find it difficult to breathe using your diaphragm. Don’t give up and keep practising. It is possible you have automatically switched to breathing with your chest and it takes time for your body to relearn to use your diaphragm properly again.
Learning diaphragmatic breathing
Anyone who has studied music, singing or performing arts is taught proper diaphragmatic breathing very early in their training. If you don’t take deep, slow diaphragmatic breaths, don’t despair. You just need to relearn how to breathe properly again.
Learning diaphragmatic is like any other skill and it takes a little bit of practise. Try it two to three times a day for up to five minutes each time. One of the advantages of diaphragmatic breathing is that you can practise it at any time, in any place, and no one will even be aware that you are doing it. It can be used when sitting on a bus or a train travelling to work, before and during a visit to the dentist or doctor, in bed just before going to sleep, or before a job interview, an exam or giving a presentation. Try the following activity:
1. Sit or lie down.
2. Loosen any tight clothing; remove shoes, tie, glasses/contact lenses.
3. Place the palms of your hands flat on your abdomen just beneath your rib cage, middle fingertips touching, at a point 2-3 inches above your navel.
4. Close your eyes and start to focus your thoughts on your breathing. Try not to think of anything but your breathing. This helps distract stressful thoughts. Thoughts will intrude, but don’t fight them; when thoughts come into your mind, try to bring your focus of attention back to your breathing. It is important not to worry how well you are doing but to instead focus on just doing your best to retain a passive, relaxed attitude.
5. Begin to inhale through your nose (not your mouth), feel the air flow through your nostrils. Breathe in for a slow count of 1, 2, 3, then exhale to a slow count of 1, 2, 3. This will give you a breathing rate of 10 breaths per minute.
6. Try to imagine in your mind’s eye that there is a balloon in your abdomen, as you inhale the balloon expands and as you exhale the balloon deflates.
7. Do not take deep breaths. When you inhale your fingertips on your abdomen should only slightly part; this will help to reduce the risk of over-breathing or becoming hypoxic.
8. Start by practising for a few minutes per day and then over time build up to five minutes, twice daily.
Breath is life
While Miss Five hasn’t read up on all of the research and benefits of diaphragmatic breathing (unless kindergarten teaching has really accelerated beyond our wildest dreams), intuitively she knew getting her little brother to “just stop and breathe” would help change his physical state.
When you really stop and think about it, breathing is life. Learning to breathe properly with your diaphragm is a proven way to manage stress and help you stay calm and focused throughout the day. Investing a small amount of time to learn this vital skill will pay for itself over and over again.
How do you build relaxed breathing into your day?