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Fix your Breath: 3 Tools to Battle Anxiety/Depression, and Perform Better

But I‘ve been breathing my whole life!

How many breaths do you take a day?  1,000?  50,000?  100,000?

On average people breathe 10-14 cycles per minute or roughly 15,000-20,000 breaths per day!  Optimal breathing is more like 4.5-6 breath cycles per minute, less than HALF that of someone with breathing dysfunctions.  

Over breathing is a huge physical energy drain, but more importantly breathing too frequently wreaks havoc on your brain and mindset. 

Here’s some of the things impacted by breathing improperly:

  • Cardiovascular issues including palpitations and missed beats
  • Headache, dizziness, instability
  • Tight Chest, inability to take a deep breath, yawning
  • Cramps
  • neck pain
  • Anxiety, panic, and agoraphobia
  • Increased allergy sensitivity
  • Impaired sleep
  • Depression

And overbreathing isn’t the only dysfunction to which we’re susceptible.  You may also have issues with:

  • Vertical breathing (movie breath)
  • Mouth Breathing
  • Paradoxical breathing
  • Sleep Apnea
  • A host of other issues particular to your anatomy and physiology 

How do I fix it?  The 3 most important things.

The good news is that fixing the majority of breathing problems isn’t complex…though it’s not easy either.  There are 3 simple things that when done in combination consistently over time yield results that seem almost too good to be true.

Nasal Breathing

Your nose is designed for breathing while your mouth’s main function is eating.  However, as our palettes shrink due to the processing and softening of our foods we’ve begun to turn into a society of mouth-breathers.   The ills of affluence strike again.

If you remember one thing from this post let it be this: BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE.  The nose serves a variety of functions.  

  • It warms or cools the air we inhale depending on the external environment for better processing of O2 in the lungs.  
  • Nasal breathing adds about 50% more resistance when you inhale, strengthening your breathing muscles, naturally slowing the rhythm of your breath, and leading to about 15% better oxygen utilization. 
  • This added resistance also facilitates better recruitment of the diaphragm, leading to further efficiencies.
  • A substance called nitric oxide is released when you inhale nasally which leads to a widening of the nasal passages as well as the dilation of vessels throughout your body.  The widening of your capillaries, airways etc. also improves gas exchange as surface area increases.

In other words, the more you breathe through your nose the easier breathing through your nose becomes.

So remember two things if nasal breathing is hard for you:

  1. The more you do it the easier it becomes
  2. The resistance you feel when breathing through your nose is normal and actually improves your bodies ability to process oxygen

Diaphragmatic Breathing

As I just mentioned nasal breathing helps to encourage involvement of the diaphragm in moving air.  Most of us walk around breathing almost exclusively in our chests.  Picture someone in your mind’s eye taking a big inhale…did you see someone’s chest puff up and shoulders raise?  This is exactly the opposite of what should actually happen!

A breath should move through your body like a wave.  First into your lower abdomen and low back and ribs, then into the sternum and mid-back, and finally into the upper back and chest.  Your torso should expand 360 degrees and not reach upward- the tell tale sign of a vertical breathing dysfunction.

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that separates the thorax (heart and lungs) from the abdomen (intestines, stomach, liver, kidneys).  Its primary purpose is driving our breath, unlike the smaller muscles many people try to use in their chest and shoulders.  

Pulling air down with diaphragmatic breathing is far more efficient than upper chest breathing because the lower lobes of the lungs provide much more surface area for respiratory gas exchange.  Due to the shape of our lungs and gravity, reoxygenation of blood occurs with much greater efficiency in the lower lobes…which is where oxygen is pulled by the diaphragm.

Slow Breathing

As I’ve already said, over-breathing wreaks havoc on our bodies.   The body requires a certain amount of both oxygen AND carbon dioxide, over breathing throws that balance off kilter.  When we wind up with way too much O2 and not nearly enough CO2 it’s hard for our red blood cells to release the oxygen molecule it’s carrying.  

Too much oxygen and chronically low levels of CO2 also lead to a problem in your brain.  The signal you get to breathe, colloquially known as ‘air hunger’, isn’t actually due to a lack of oxygen but instead a buildup of CO2.  Our bodies are smart and if the trigger to breathe was from lack of oxygen we’d be dangerously close to passing out at any given moment.  Instead the urge to breathe comes from rising levels of CO2 at a sensor we have in our brain.

The problem with overbreathing and chronically low levels of carbon dioxide is the sensor adapts to the low carbon dioxide environment  drastically increasing CO2 sensitivity, making the cycle worse and worse.  It’s a self perpetuating breathing death spiral.

There are 2 ways to fix the oversensitivity developed at the sensor in your brain:

  1. Breath work
  2. Exercise (but most people over breathe AND breathe with improper mechanics during exercise…which is why breath work is so vital)

The tip of the iceberg.

Doing the three things I mentioned above will have a drastic impact on your health, but they’re just the foundation of much more to come.

We can use breath to tap into our nervous system and upregulate before a big competition or presentation- or put ourselves into a meditative state where we’re relaxed and open to new ideas.  When it comes to exercise breath is VITAL before, during and after for optimum performance and recovery.  Do you struggle to breathe while doing what should be ‘low intensity’ cardio?  Chances are your breath is at least one of the problems.

Start with breathing slowly through your nose with your diaphragm, but know that’s only just the start of a very rewarding journey.

Here is a breathing practice from Coach Jay you can do to get focused and energized before a big presentation or event.

If you’re curious to learn more about breathing keep your eyes peeled for our next exploratory breathing session, or email our Performance Breathing Coach at jay@locomotionfit.com.

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