Breathe Freely- The importance of breathing correctly

Wait, correctly? Is there an incorrect method of breathing?

The answer is yes, under certain circumstances.

     Breathing is controlled by our autonomic nervous system, which means, much like our heartbeat, and our body does it naturally without us having to think about it. In spite of that, however, we have an amazing amount of control over our breath.


     When we are young children, from birth until around elementary school age, or even middle school, the majority of our breathing is called “diaphragmatic breathing”. Once we start to get to the more stressful time periods of our lives, though, we tend to transition to chest breathing, and only breathe with our diaphragms when we are asleep at night.


What is the difference between the two?


     Diaphragmatic breathing is the act of inhaling and exhaling using one’s diaphragm, the muscle that lies underneath the rib cage. The diaphragm expands downward and allows your rib cage and lungs to expand to their fullest extent.


     Chest breathing is when the initial inspiration (breathing in) is started by the neck and the intercostal muscles in the ribcage. The diaphragm may be used, but the engagement of the muscle is negligible.


What is going on behind the scenes?


     The main difference between chest breathing and diaphragmatic breathing is the involvement of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Our sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” system or the system that kicks into overdrive when we have an adrenaline rush. When this adrenaline hits our bodies, we release stress hormones, and our muscles tense up.


     Respectively, our parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” system, which helps us relax and our body can resume business as usual. This is the system that allows us to fall asleep at night, causes our digestive and sexual organs to work correctly, and reduces anxiety.


     The sympathetic nervous response (an adrenaline rush), automatically turns on breathing with our chest. It is just a natural response to whatever is threatening our body. The problem is, breathing with our chest can engage our sympathetic nervous system, even when there is no threat. So this bad habit can become an awful cycle. Our chest breathing can engage our fight or flight response, which tells the body that it is under threat, which in turn, releases stress hormones, tenses muscles, increases anxiety, which then engages more chest breathing. No wonder we are walking around more anxious and tense than ever before!


     We do not have to be stuck in this never-ending anxiety-inducing loop though! We can interrupt this cycle by making a concerted effort to breathe with our diaphragm. This simple action can help create a positive cycle that will engage our parasympathetic nervous system, and kick in our rest and digest response. Activating this response will relax us, help us function better, and reduce stress hormones and anxiety.


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