The better breathing guide

Anna Magee

We all know that drawing a deep breath makes us feel instantly better. So why is it so easy to forget? Anna Magee talks to the experts about breathing techniques and how your breath can make you healthier – best news, it’s free!

Most of us never think about how we breathe unless we are short of breath through exercise, illness or stress. The result is we get into the habit of using only about a third of our lungs, even though the area that our lung tissue would cover if it was spread out is unbelievably the size of a tennis course.

Not breathing correctly can aggravate conditions such as asthma and lung disease

Not breathing correctly can aggravate conditions such as asthma and lung disease, says Dr Keith Prowse, respiratory physician.  ‘It can also mean the lungs take longer to recover from chest infections and bronchitis, he says.  Not using our lungs properly makes breathing harder for our bodies than it needs to be and lead to a host of everyday problems, says physiotherapist Lizzie Flude.  ‘Over time, it can lead to chronic tiredness, slumped shoulders and a habitually tense back, neck and shoulders as the rest of the body tries to aid the lungs in getting more air in,’ she says.

Not using our lungs properly makes breathing harder for our bodies than it needs to be and lead to a host of everyday problems

What’s going on when I breathe?

During inhalation, the diaphragm, the large muscle at the base of your ribs whose only job it is to get maximum air into your lungs, contracts and flattens, descending downwards.  This expands the thoracic cavity, allowing lung volume to increase.  In the lungs air from the atmosphere is separated into life-giving oxygen which goes to the heart, blood, brain and all other cells and organs and carbon dioxide which is then exhaled.  The greater the expansion in your diaphragm when you breathe, the more air you get into your lungs, the more life-giving oxygen your body subsequently gets.  No wonder taking a deep breath makes you feel instantly better!

5 signs you’re not breathing correctly

One or more of these symptoms can indicate you aren’t breathing correctly, says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a psychophysiologist at Capio Nightingale Hospital

1. Sighing more than usual 

Cause – Habitually holding the breath. With intermittent deep sighing, the body is instinctively trying to make up for the oxygen deficit that holding the breath leads to.

Entrepreneur Yawning In Office

Yawning may not always mean you’re tired. It can be caused by shallow breathing.

2. Yawning often

Cause – Shallow breathing. When we’re relaxed we take about five to eight breaths a minute. A shallow breather can take anything from ten to 20, most from the chest. If people are commenting that you sigh or yawn often, or you’re doing it when you wouldn’t normally, incorrect breathing may be to blame.

3. Grinding your teeth at night

Cause – Stress and shallow breathing. Breathing incorrectly often accompanies tooth grinding as both are symptoms of stress.  In about 40 per cent of the chronically stressed or mentally ill people I see, tooth grinding and breathing inefficiently go hand in hand.

4. Tight neck and shoulders

Cause – Chest breathing.  When you breathe only into your chest, the muscles in the neck, shoulders and back will attempt to ‘chip in’ and help the body breathe deeper so the lungs get more air.   If you find you often feel tense in this area and it’s not related to recent exercise or injury your breathing may be to blame.

Woman with upper back and neck pain

Chest breathing can cause neck pain. When you breathe only into your chest, the muscles
in the neck, shoulders and back will help the body breathe deeper.

5. Always feeling tired

Cause – Inefficient breathing. Breathing incorrectly means you don’t get enough of one of the three essentials needed for energy – oxygen, food and water.  Furthermore, if people breathe inefficiently they use as little as 20 per cent of their lung capacity leaving other muscles such as the back, neck and shoulders making more effort to fill the lungs.  One of the most convincing theories behind chronic fatigue syndrome connects it to incorrect breathing.

2 common breathing traps 

These two common breathing patterns can constrict your lungs’ capacity when you breathe. Sound familiar?

1. Mouth Breathing

Breathing through our mouths instead of our noses is the most common bad habit says Lizzie Flude, a chartered physiotherapist specialising in respiratory medicine. ‘People who are anxious and busy often start using their mouths to breath which causes a dry mouth as well as tiredness. Plus the intake of more air than is needed also means the release of too much carbon dioxide too quickly which can cause palpitations, chest pains and tingling in the hands and feet’.   Left unchecked, such breathing can turn into recurring panic attacks and hyperventilation when people are nervous or frightened, says Dr Prowse.

People who are anxious and busy often start using their mouths to breath which causes a dry mouth as well as tiredness

2. Breath Holding

Unconsciously holding our breath is prevalent among driven, high-achieving personalities, according to Dr Ramlakhan. ‘They may be really fit, but also anxious by nature. So the natural flow of breathing is held unconsciously but habitually – usually because of stress.’  Breath holders find themselves taking sudden deep breaths or giving deep sighs to over-compensate. Breath holders often breath into their chests too, which increases feelings of stress and may also cause tightness in the shoulders and neck.

How to breathe easy

Follow these exercises three times a week for three weeks to change your breathing technique. The aim is to breath slowly and deeply in and out through your nose, ensuring you are breathing from your diaphragm rather than taking a shallow breath into your chest.

To find your diaphragm, place your hands at the base of your ribs and breathe deeply. The diaphragm should expand sideways while your belly expands outwards, while chest and shoulders stay relaxed.

breathing exercises

exercises such as slowing down and deepening
your breathing will all help to correct breathing patterns

Now sit on a chair or lie on the floor, making sure to keep warm. Keeping warm helps to relax the respiratory muscles which are the abdominal muscles, the diaphragm and the muscles in the back.

1. Notice your breathing Pay attention to the movement of your chest, shoulders and belly while you breathe. Close your eyes and bring your attention inwards. Where is your breathing coming from?  Chest? Belly?  Shoulders?

2. Open your breathing Straighten your torso, roll your shoulder down and back, relax your arms and hands, place your tongue on the roof of your mouth. If you are sitting, raise or lower your chin so that it’s parallel to the floor.

3. Deepen your breathing Prolong your exhalation by a few seconds by pulling your belly in towards your spine. Notice the tug of your diaphragm between your abdomen and chest as you breathe in again more fully and deeply. Remember to keep your shoulders relaxed.

4. Slow your breathing down  At the end of each exhalation and inhalation, pause momentarily and begin again, to help slow and deepen your breathing even further.

No time?

Try this two minute breathing fix recommended by respiratory physician Dr Keith Prowse. ‘Every hour or so, take a moment to check how you are breathing. Sit quietly and simply breathe in for a count of four to five and out for a count of four to five.  People’s temptation is to snatch their breath in and out, but counting the breath helps you breathe slower and deeper.’

yogic breathing helps to balance both sides of the brain, the logical left brain and the emotional/creative right brain

The instant stress-reliever 

Need to relax and focus? Try ‘alternate nostril breathing’, which is a yoga breathing technique for calm and clarity, says Elisabeth Wilson, author of Stress-free living (The Feel Good Factory).   According to Dr Ramlakhan, this type of yogic breathing helps to balance both sides of the brain, the logical left brain and the emotional/creative right brain.  ‘In times of stress we tend to try and over-use our rational brain when we need the ‘whole’ brain to solve a problem,’ she says.

Close off your right nostril with the thumb of your right hand and breathe in through the left nostril for the count of four.  Now close off your left nostril with the index finger of your right hand and exhale for the count of four. Breathe in through your right nostril and then out through your left, closing off your right nostril with your thumb. Repeat half a dozen times.

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