Breathing might seem like the most natural act in the world, but the truth is many of us aren’t doing it optimally.
I first learned the power of breathing when, while under tremendous stress at a former job, I developed a pain under my rib cage that wouldn’t go away. Learning to breathe properly finally helped it vanish.
If you watch how babies breathe, you’ll notice that their bellies expand when they inhale and contract when they exhale. This deep, restorative breathing is what oxygenates vital organs and tissues.
Unfortunately, as adults, many of us habitually hyperventilate without knowing it by taking quick, shallow breaths. This can lead to tension headaches, fatigue, irritability and even anxiety and depression. Shallow breathing sharply reduces the level of carbon dioxide in your blood, causing the arteries -- including the carotid artery, which goes to the brain -- to constrict and reduce the flow of blood throughout the body. When this occurs, no matter how much oxygen you take into your lungs, your brain and body will experience a shortage. This switches on the sympathetic nervous system -- your fight-or-flight reflex -- which makes you tense, anxious and irritable. On the other hand, breathing deeply optimises oxygen levels, helping improve your energy, mental acuity and physical performance.
How to breathe right: The key is to slow your exhalation. (If you try to slow your inhalation, you’ll only create tension in your body.) To begin, I recommend rubbing your hands together to warm them and then placing them on your belly to bring your awareness to the area. Inhale naturally through your nose and feel your belly expand. Don’t try to swallow as much air as possible; stop when it feels comfortable. Then exhale gently through pursed lips and feel your belly contract. Imagine you are trying to make a candle flame quiver just slightly, without extinguishing it. Don’t try to force out every last drop of air; just pause and wait for your next breath to come naturally.
Changing your breathing in this way helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which -- unlike the sympathetic nervous system -- triggers a relaxation response. Make it a habit and you will feel less stressed and more energetic all day.