Its not often that people stop and take the time to think about their breathing. On an average day most people won’t even give it a second thought or even notice that they are breathing. Its one of the most important bodily processes in keeping us alive and yet one of the most neglected. Our breathing is a great meter on how our body is functioning, our physical health, and even our mental health. Most people know that if you are out of breath you have either exerted yourself physically or are out of shape. Being out of breath for no apparent reason is a clear sign of physical health problems. What most people don’t know is that your breathing can give you major clues into your mental state and can be used to control and regulate that mental state as well.
Anxiety is often thought to cause rapid breathing as one of its many symptoms. When having a panic attack many people describe it as hyperventilating. What most people don’t know is that changes in breathing patterns, such as breathing more shallow and quickly can actually lead to or worsen that anxiety or panic. Whichever comes first, the connection between breathing and anxiety or even stress tolerance is key in learning to control it.
If shallow, rapid breathing is associated with increased anxiety and decreased stress tolerance, then the obvious solution would be breathe slower and deeper. Unfortunately, its not quite that simple. There are many formal techniques that can be used by qualified professionals to teach these tools, but luckily there are also some that can be practiced on your own. Some basic knowledge on breathing can help you learn how to manipulate your breathing to improve your mental health. The average adult breathes about 12 breaths per minute, but the ideal breath rate for a body and mind to function at peak form is six to eight breaths per minute. Focusing on slowing your breath rate is the first step.
Beyond the number of breaths there are a number of factors that can be adjusted. Where you breathe from, length of inhale vs exhale, and whether or not you hold your breath in between. Most people assume that breathing only includes inhale and exhale; however, between each there is generally a period of holding. When focusing on changing your breathing it is important to only inhale and exhale to comfort, not for a set amount of time, which is where the holding comes in. Knowing where you breathe from is also important. Breathing from your diaphragm is ideal and healthiest. This is when you notice your stomach moving when you breath. During moments of higher stress or anxiety it is easy for breath to move up to become more thoracic or in your chest. This does not allow for proper circulation and restricts you from getting enough oxygen.
So what this all means is that you can use your breathing to improve your physical and mental health. In times of stress you can manipulate your breathing in order to control your mood and calm yourself, improving your mental state and well being. During these times focus on moving your breathing back down to your diaphragm, slowing your rate, counting your breaths, and taking full inhalations and exhalations with holds in between. Eventually you should find a rhythm that feels natural to you and with practice falls around six to eight breaths a minute. There are even phone apps now that can help you with visual cues to follow and match your breathing to. Once you have mastered the use of these breathing skills, you will have just one more skill to use in controlling your emotions and maintaining or improving your health.