Breathing Well – Feeling Steady
In the Yoga and Eastern Wisdom traditions, our relationship to our breath is of key significance.
The breath is considered to be where the mind and the body meet, the interface between our physical and mental or emotional states.
One of the most obvious signs of feeling tense and stressed is the feeling of erratic or shallow breathing. We use phrases like ‘that took my breath away’ or ‘I held my breath’, and our experiences can be ‘breath-taking ‘.
In an immediately threatening situation our breath rises to the top of the chest. We breathe more shallowly and quickly, packing in oxygen to supply the muscles with energy for action. If we are dealing with long term stress, this altered breathing pattern may become habitual. This is sometimes called hyperventilation. It is estimated that around 6O% of us breathe in this less efficient way, as a result of the pace, and stress of our lives. It may be only a short step from here to the experience of extra stress or anxiety tipping us into a state where we feel alarmingly breathless. This is known as a ‘panic attack’. The link below discusses some of the factors that contribute to a panic state as well as giving you some advice on how to manage and reduce such episodes.
The average adult will take between 15 and 18 breaths each minute when at rest.
Your lungs and heart are enclosed and protected by the ribcage. The upper part of your chest moves with the assistance of muscles around your collar bone and neck , and short ‘intercostal’ muscles between the ribs also assisting the breathing process at the level of your ribs.
However, 8O% of the work of breathing is carried out by the diaphragm, a flat muscle at the base of your chest cavity. As your diaphragm contracts it moves downwards creating a vacuum in the chest cavity, and causing your lower abdomen to move outwards. Air rushes into the chest causing you to inhale. As the diaphragm relaxes it domes upwards, the abdomen falls back and air is pushed out causing you to exhale. You can see this happening if you watch the movement of a baby’s tummy as it sleeps.
The interesting thing about the diaphragm as a muscle is that it has a dual nerve supply. It is innervated by both autonomic and voluntary nerves. This means that the diaphragm will work automatically but can also be contracted at will. We can strengthen the diaphragm , like any other voluntary muscle.
DIFFICULTIES CAUSED BY INEFFICIENT BREATHING
If we are chronically stressed, or have developed a habit of inefficient breathing, we will not be using the diaphragm to our advantage. The work of breathing will be performed by shorter muscles, not designed for long term use in this way. Over use of the neck muscles can leave us experiencing neck pain and tightness, headaches from neck tension and sore throats or sensations of tension in the upper chest.
The balance between our levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide will be altered and this in turn affects the acidity levels of our blood. This alteration of our blood chemistry affects the availability of oxygen to the cells. Ironically, although we have a surplus of oxygen in our blood stream the altered acidity reduces the cell walls ability to absorb it. As a result of this complex shift we may experience sensations of muscle cramps, and since the circulation to the head is most sensitive, we may feel light headed, sensitive to noise or light, or a little unsteady.
Although alarming these sensations can shift quite well once we practice retraining our breath into a more helpful pattern. You can find out more about hyperventilation here,
Next: Tools to Help