A full natural breath (also called ‘belly’ breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing) pulls air and blood into the lower part of the lungs. As babies, all of us were deep diaphragmatic breathers. Across the years the stress in your life may have undermined your natural breathing pattern.
Stress causes all body muscles to tense and tighten up, to be ready for protective action. When we've been under stress for a long time, chronic stress causes muscles to become constantly strained ( or ‘hypertonic'). When the diaphragmatic and abdominal muscles remain in a hypertonic state, they do not work through their full range of motion. Their movement is frozen and breathing becomes shallow. As well, additional stress reactions in the body (sympathetic surges) further increase chest breathing. All of these reactions in combination create a vicious cycle that finally results in the SNS stress system becoming the dominant system, both day and night. At this point sleep and health problems are inevitable.
For many of us, breathing patterns have shifted to stiffer, more shallow breathing patterns. These rely excessively on chest breathing. Chest breathers are exerting more conscious control over their in- and out-breaths. But more control means that each breath is shallower. The outcome is having to take more breaths and that can easily shift into hyperventilation and panic.
Shallow breathing uses mainly the upper chest (ribs) and shoulders. These boney structures not only protect the lungs, they also contribute to drawing air and blood into the top part of the lungs when breathing is distressed. Because the top of the lung is smaller than the bottom, chest breathing leads to a much smaller volume of air and blood brought in and out of the lungs. Because chest breathing is more inefficient, a chest breather often feels short of breath, causing them to speed up their breaths and begin to hyperventilate. When we are stressed, all of us start to chest breathe.
Shallow chest breathing undermines your body's natural ability to nurture your mental and physical health. It undermines health by activating more sympathetic ("fight or flight") activity in your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Physical and mental health requires a balance of parasympathetic ("rest and digest") and sympathetic activity. This balance permits the body to restore its function from regular sleep at night and proper digestion.
Using the belly to breathe gives you a tool to rebalance your autonomic (stress) system.
Learning to belly breathe again will improve the circulation of both blood and lymph. In fact, breathing in with the diaphragm and exhaling with the abdominal core, is the pump for the lymphatic system. Belly breathing also massages your digestive organs. These sit between your diaphragm and the abdominal core. In this way regular deep breathing promotes digestion, which supports parasympathetic activity.
The muscle that helps fill the bottom of the lungs is called the diaphragmatic muscle. It is shaped like a parachute with its lower edges anchored to your bottom rib and to your spine. This muscle is not visible because it runs across the inside of the body. It is just under the lungs and heart, and just above the stomach and other digestive organs. Breathing with the diaphragm results in a larger volume of air and blood being moved in and out of the lungs. Every baby coming into the world is a natural belly breather.
What kind of breather are you?
Most of us do not know. We take breathing for granted. Why should we notice our breath? It just seems to happen, so how can it go wrong? Well, if you are more than a year old, you will have encountered many stresses in your life. And unbeknownst to you, these stresses reshape your breathing pattern from a natural belly breather to an inefficient chest breather. And that carries many health implications.
Regular breathing exercises can help you center your conscious awareness on your body, rather than your thoughts, and your head. Deep breathing relaxes your body's muscle system (neck, shoulders, torso, arms and legs). After a few weeks of regular diaphragmatic breathing you will begin to feel more grounded and less stressed. Some people use these exercises repeatedly across the day, to improve their energy and focus their minds.
This site will guide you through an assessment of how you are breathing. Are you a chest breather, a mixed breather, of a diaphragmatic breather? After you have completed this ten minute assessment, you receive feedback on your breathing pattern.
And that is only the start. Once you know your breathing pattern, we will recommend a breathing exercise that begins the process of shifting your breath pattern back to natural breathing. You will receive directions for the breathing exercise that will be the most helpful starting exercise for you. Sign up for a free two-week trail and receive the first breathing exercise to help you move toward breathing naturally again. You have nothing to lose.
It takes about three weeks of daily breathing exercises to notice improvements. About eight weeks of a daily 15 minute effortless, rhythmic breathing routine is needed to achieve what Doidge calls NeuroRelaxation, that is, a healthy reorganization of the brain's stress patterns.