Breathing: Am I Really Doing it Wrong?

by Dr. Amy Pelletier, ND

Excerpt: Harnessing our breath can be one of our most powerful tools for stress and anxiety, but are we doing it correctly? How can breathing actually make a difference in how I feel?

If there is one thing I tell my patients on repeat, it’s to breathe deeply every day. It sounds like simple—and almost silly—health advice since every day we breathe in and out without thinking about it, it’s a necessary function of staying alive. So why am I spending valuable visit time reviewing breathing? Because harnessing our breath can be one of the most powerful tools for stress and anxiety control.

Before we review breathing strategies, I think it’s important to take a minute to differentiate between stress and stressor. A stressor is the person, event, thought, etc that elicited the stress response. For example, a last minute assignment at work is a stressor. The stress, is what happens in your body in response to the stressor. Maybe your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes more shallow, your concentration isn’t as focused, and you just generally feel anxious and “stressed”. Once the stressor is dealt with, it’s time to deal with the stress, unfortunately, eliminating one does not adequately resolve the other. This is where deep breathing comes in, it communicates to your body that the stressor is resolved and the stress can be released.

The goal and resulting outcome of slow, deep breathing is inhibition of the sympathetic nervous system, our “fight, flight, or freeze” system, and activation of the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. The intricacies of how this parasympathetic activation translates to reduced stress, anxiety, and depression is not well understood, though the fact that it does, is very consistent across the data.

How to Incorporate Deep Breathing into Your Day

When we’re stressed our breathing can get shallow and when we enter fight-or-flight, our inhale gets longer than our exhale. Think of it this way, if you were running from a predator, you would need to get oxygen in fast with minimal effort so that you could keep running for just long enough to escape. When we’re at rest, we breathe slowly and more deeply. To take advantage of this I often teach patients a few different types of breathing:

1. 4-2-6 Breathing: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, and out of 6 seconds. This is a great starting point and as deep breathing becomes more comfortable, the time of each section can be extended.

2. Box Breathing: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, and hold for 4 seconds. Repeat.

3. Alternate nostril breathing: close one nostril and breathe deeply and slowly in, hold for 2 seconds while switching the nostril that is closed, breathe out. Repeat, starting with a different side for each inhale.

How often should we be doing these exercises? A simple option is to do 3-4 deep breaths when you wake up, before each meal, and before bed, plus anytime you feel stress creeping up on you. When we practice breathing regularly in states of relaxation, we’re more likely to turn to it in times of stress when we need it most.

Dr. Amy Pelletier is a Naturopathic Doctor and offers appointments at Local Health Integrative Clinic Sundays and Tuesdays. Click here to book an appointment with Dr. Amy.

*The content of this article is not a substitute for personal and professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new healthcare plan.

References

  • PMID: 25869930
  • PMID: 30826382
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