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When you consider how often it’s used and for what purposes – during labour, training for endurance sports, yoga – deep breathing is perhaps the greatest tool we’re armed with in uncertain times.
It’s been found in multiple studies to reduce the perception of pain, which is why women are often told to breathe steadily, with deep inhales and exhales, during childbirth. The tactic of using breathing as a painkiller is even adopted by some beauticians offering waxing services, who will tell clients to take a deep breath and exhale while they rip the hair from their bodies. Ouch.
But breathing properly has many other benefits too, it can reduce stress and anxiety levels, slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and sharpen our focus. In a 2018 study, scientists discovered that breathing properly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance attention and improve brain health. Dr Noel Baxter, GP and British Lung Foundation medical adviser, says doing it daily can also help to strengthen the muscles in the chest wall and diaphragm.
The nation’s anxiety levels are, quite understandably, higher than normal. A Mental Health Foundation poll of more than 2,000 UK adults taken between 17-18 March found 62% of adults felt anxious or worried because of the coronavirus pandemic – and that was before the lockdown measures were announced. In fact, a University of Sheffield study found the number of people reporting “significant” depression and anxiety spiked when Boris Johnson announced the lockdown.
The number dropped the day after the announcement, yet levels of depression and anxiety over the whole week were elevated above normal levels, particularly among those aged under 35, living in a city, living alone or with children, with low incomes, with health conditions, or whose incomes had been affected by the pandemic.
While breathing isn’t by any means a cure for mental health problems – often, people will need professional support, medication, or both – it can help us when we feel anxious or stressed. “It makes such a world of difference, especially if somebody is feeling anxious. Or even nervous, they don’t have to be actually anxious,” says therapist and Counselling Directory member, Sophie Robinson-Matthews. “It’s just so good for us. We are designed to breathe.”
She doesn’t believe nearly enough people are utilising their breathing properly. “People who actively practise meditation and go to yoga will be more aware of the importance of breath and posture so we can breathe properly,” she explains, “but I think people who don’t necessarily have those regular practises aren’t as mindful of their breath.”
A lot of us will now be working from home, hunched over our desks – our posture shot to pieces by makeshift office setups. This in itself is detrimental to the way we breathe and can also result in neck pain and headaches. “It can help so much if we stretch out and breathe properly so our diaphragm can fully expand and contract as it’s meant to,” says Robinson-Matthews. “If we’re hunched over, our lungs can’t properly expand and the stomach can’t properly expand, we can’t be breathing properly.”
As adults, most of the time we’re doing what’s known as shallow breathing, which can actually trigger anxious feelings in itself. Shallow breathing has been linked to anything from panic attacks to dry mouth and fatigue, and aggravated respiratory problems.
Instead, we should be aiming to breathe from our abdomen. “If you’ve ever been around babies, or seen YouTube videos of babies breathing, you can see that they’re breathing with their stomach,” she continues. “Their stomach is coming out and going back in – and we just don’t do that as often as adults. We’re breathing from the throat, more or less, the top of the lungs and are not utilising the full lung space.”
“Take a few moments regularly throughout the day, as you would with a coffee break, just to check: am I breathing properly right now?””
So how can you use your lungs to their full capacity? You need to let the air you breathe in push out your abdomen – that’s the sign you’re doing it properly.
First, sit up straight (or stand) to allow yourself to use all the muscles you need to breathe properly. Now, breathe out for longer than you breathe in – so you could breathe in through your nose for four seconds and then breathe out through your mouth for seven seconds – do it to a level that’s comfortable for you. “If you do five rounds of that, usually you can feel the benefit,” says Robinson-Matthews.
She’s also a fan of box breathing or 4x4 breathing, which is a good one if you’re feeling anxious or stressed as you’re basically forced to focus on your breathing and nothing else. “Imagine, in your mind, drawing a box,” says Robinson-Matthews, “or do it with your finger if you’re not a visual person.” Breathe in for four seconds, while drawing one side, and then hold your breath for four seconds while drawing the next, breathe out for four while drawing the third side, and leave your lungs empty while you complete the square. Repeat this about 10 times to feel some effect. You might want to do this exercise first thing in the morning or last thing at night to reap the rewards.
Given the current climate, the therapist suggests people should prioritise taking regular breathing breaks like they would making a drink. “Take a few moments regularly throughout the day, as you would with a coffee break, just to check: am I breathing properly right now?” she says.
If you keep forgetting, maybe set an alarm on your phone – there’s no time like the present to make breathing your priority.
You can find a range of breathing techniques on the NHS website.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.