Breathe In, Breathe Out – By Estelle O’Keeffe

Coming out of lockdown while exciting may cause some of us to be feeling a little more anxious than usual.  James Nestor, in his new book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, argues that modern humans have become quite bad at the most basic act of living.

Nestor details in his book that our inability to breath properly may be contributing to our anxiety and other mental health problems. What Nestor and many other health professionals are discovering is that breathing could be an overlooked key to finding more calm and peace in our daily life.  Instead of trying to tame our anxiety with our thoughts, breathing in a particular rhythm allows us to bypass our mind’s complexities, targets the body directly and sometimes find immediate relief.

In a 2017 study, highly anxious people were assigned to take a course in diaphragmatic breathing relaxation, and they practiced twice a day at home. Diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing which is something I often talk about), involves breathing deeply into the abdomen rather than taking shallow breaths into the chest. After eight weeks, they reported feeling less anxious compared to a group that didn’t receive the training. They also showed physical signs of reduced anxiety, including lower heart rate, slower breathing, and lower skin conductivity.

The way we breathe can also set off physical changes in the body that encourage either stress or anxiety. Breathing influences the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) branches of our nervous system.  certain techniques can help bring about more parasympathetic calm and relaxation. Certain techniques can help bring about more parasympathetic calm and relaxation, allowing us to consciously take control of our breathing and therefore our nervous system and in turn, your anxiety.

There are many techniques to try if you want to practice breathing for better mental health. Many of the following have been derived from pranayama, yogic breathing that dates back to ancient India.

  • Ujjayi – Deep breathing with a narrowed throat, creating a ocean- like sound
  • Bhastrika or Belly Breath (one I readily use) – inhaling and exhaling forcefully
  • Nadi Shodhana – Type of alternate nostril breathing, where air is inhaled in one nostril and exhaled through the other, sometimes with breath hold.
  • Box breathing - Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4, and exhale for 4, and repeat.

In the same way that mindfulness practice isn’t just meditation, breathing as a practice isn’t just waking up every morning and doing 10 minutes of box breathing. It is very important to be aware of the way you breathe in everyday life (or even while checking your emails or waiting for the traffic light to turn green).

Our lives bring many things to worry about so if breathing is sending messages to our brains that something is wrong, it’s no wonder we feel anxious and ultimately why many of these breathing techniques can bring such profound healing.

To read the full article by James Nestor click on this link.