Maybe too much inhaling, maybe not enough exhaling, maybe breathing way too fast. Due to any number of factors, very few people breathe to their full potential. I see this time and time again in the breathing classes I teach. A new client comes to me and reports that she’s eating clean, drinking more water, popping supplements, seeing the chiropractor, and using a heating pad to keep old injuries at bay while icing new ones. She’s doing everything right.
Then I ask her one simple question: “How is your breathing?” And she points to her nose and tells me about her allergies.
I’m sure you can relate. But did you know that just about anything and everything — from your age, to your health history, to your texting addiction — can have a powerful impact on your capacity to breathe optimally? Assess how you actually breathe and consider the possibility that you’re not breathing as well as you should — in everyday life, on the treadmill, at the computer.
SELF-EXAM: LET’S LOOK AT YOU
What’s messing up your breathing? See if you answer yes to any of the following questions I ask my clients:
1. Do you sit in front of a computer or in a car or truck for work?
2. Do you wear compression garments, belts, support pantyhose, or a bulletproof vest?
3. As a child, did you live with any type of fear, anxiety, or worry over a period of time, even if you think you weren’t traumatized by it?
4. Do you text throughout the day?
5. Do you carry a bag, knapsack, or purse? How much does it weigh?
6. Have you ever had pneumonia or recurring bouts of bronchitis?
7. Have you ever smoked or lived with a smoker?
8. Have you ever lived or spent time in a city with high levels of smog or pollution, or lived someplace with noxious smells?
9. Do you have a deviated septum or do you snore?
10. Do you have or have you ever had neck, shoulder, or back injuries?
Oh, and are you over the age of twenty-nine?
How many questions did you say yes to? Even just one of these can lead to under-breathing, either by impairing lung function or laying the foundation for one or more of the abnormal breathing patterns to be discussed later in this chapter. If you’re breathing poorly — and you probably are — you could be doing so for any number of reasons, apart from those mentioned in the quiz. These may include:
Chronic stress, anxiety, or a history of panic attacks or other anxiety disorders. Before you dismiss these as “not me,” think about whether you’ve ever stayed awake worrying about money, your health, the stress of a divorce or breakup, your kids, or being the caretaker of elderly parents. If any one of these sounds familiar, chances are you’re stressed out.
Technology and poor posture. Think your posture is fine? How many times a day do you bend your head to text, to update your Facebook status, or to play a game on your phone? How many hours are you hunched over a laptop or desk? These positions put your head and shoulders into a position that impairs breathing and, consequently, your health.
Long periods of time spent sitting down, whether while driving, working, or watching TV. The latest studies of how many hours people sit a day report an average of thirteen hours.
Anything around your torso: a sports bra or just your average waistband that holds your pants or skirt around your middle.
Lung or nose issues. Broken nose, allergies or sinus problems, asthma, emphysema, and other respiratory diseases.
Your body. Beer belly, extra abdominal weight.
Pause a moment and pay attention to your breath without trying to influence it. Now think about how you breathe in more challenging situations; e.g., during a workout or a jog. Are you using the right muscles to breathe? Are you filling just part of your lungs with oxygen-rich air? Chances are you’re stuck in one of the following abnormal breathing patterns.
In the last chapter, you noted whether you were a Horizontal or Vertical Breather (breathing up and down or widening when you inhale and exhale). Now look more specifically: Which of the following types sound familiar?
1. Paradoxical Breather (Gasper). Also known as “Reverse Breathing,” this pattern uses your muscles in a contradictory manner; this is to say, you draw your belly in during an inhale and relax it out during an exhale — the polar opposite of what you should be doing. Paradoxical Breathers take in significantly less air than anyone else, actually going against what their body wants to do, anatomically, with each inhale and exhale. Theory says that it comes from anxiety in childhood — try gasping in fear and see how you mimic that breathing.
2. Breath-Holder (or Periodic or Hypoxic Breather). Periodically, throughout the day, you pretty much act as if you are under water. You hold your breath for seemingly no reason, and don’t notice except when it gets pointed out to you that you yawn and sigh a lot (or that you don’t seem to be breathing when you work out). This is another stress-fueled pattern. If you find this happening when you’re at your computer, it’s colloquially called “e-mail apnea.”
This is caused by a predatory, stress-induced type of concentration while at the screen (a type of concentration that has the focused intensity of a hunter stalking prey).
This abnormal pattern is alarmingly common. My clients have reported being surprised to find themselves holding their breath for several seconds throughout the day for no apparent reason. This pattern throws whatever balance they may have out of whack, as their body continuously tries to compensate for the moments in which they’re not letting carbon dioxide out or oxygen in.
3. Over-Breather (hyperventilating). Chronic ventilation at low levels results in an imbalance of carbon dioxide and oxygen. Although you’re breathing more quickly, you’re out of balance. The rate of breathing here is too high, and the pH levels are usually abnormal as well. There are two breakdowns here: your exhale is strong and your inhale is constricted, or the opposite — your inhale is long and your exhale is short.
4. No-Haler. No inhale, no exhale; this breather just “hovers,” sipping in air then barely letting it out. Your body doesn’t expand and contract, it barely moves at all. These
People tend to brace their bodies and make very little movement at all, saying their breath feels stuck in both directions.
Now that you know the many different types of abnormal breathing patterns and the factors that can influence how you breathe, you can see why virtually no adult these days breathes optimally without proper training.
I know what you’re thinking: Okay, so my breathing is terrible! Now what? Well, now I’m going to show you why abnormal breathing patterns don’t have to be “normal” for you — and a simple exercise that will show you how to make every breath count.
Sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor. If you’re sitting on a chair, don’t lean back against the chair. If you’re on the floor, make sure that you’re seated on a blanket or pillow to give you a little height. On the inhale, expand your belly as you lean forward. If you’re very thin, you may have to “push” your belly out to get the right posture in the beginning; if you’re heavier around the middle, the sensation is about “releasing” your belly or putting it on your lap. On the exhale, lean back as if you were slumping on a couch: contract your belly, narrowing your waist, and exhale until you’re completely empty. Do as many as 20 repetitions.
Copyright © 2016 by Belisa Vranich and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.
Dr. Belisa Vranich is a renowned clinical psychologist, public speaker, and the author of BREATHE.
Originally published at medium.com