So, how should I breathe?
Many people ask me, so how should I breathe? It seems they have forgotten what once was natural and normal. Well, if you have had this question, too, you are not alone. I certainly did, and together with me an estimated 90% of the population!
It turns out we learn to do certain ways of breathing generally because this is a useful coping strategy. Here are three examples:
- A pain sufferer may unintentionally learn to overbreathe as this will reduce the felt pain. The more prolonged the pain, the more entrenched the breathing habit becomes.
- An overbreathing habit develops as a result of an incident that involved a feeling of not getting enough air coupled with discomfort, fear or more severe trauma. The overbreathing habit ensures that this feeling is never experienced again – and not even close! This scenario is quite common in young children that experience their first blocked nose or in someone that experienced choking or near drowning.
- Sometimes, we intentionally learn a specific way of breathing in order to enter specific emotional, physiological or conscious states. This may lead to a belief that this is the ‘right’ way to breathe. Best example: “Take a deep breath to feel better.”
Habitual ways of breathing are often unconscious which means that we are not aware anymore that our breath is different to normal and that we are “doing” or controlling the breath. It is at this stage that we forget what the real normal feels like.
At a physiological level, the body initially counteracts changes in blood gas levels. However, over time this reduces and the body adjusts to new blood gas levels.
No matter what the origin of the habit and whether it developed with more or less awareness, all breathing habits share certain features:
- They serve a purpose. This means there is motivation to maintain the habit. Common motivators for breathing habits are feeling in control, avoidance of discomfort or fear, and entering certain states of being.
- There is something that reinforces the habit. Commonly this revolves around a certain belief or feeling. This means that some breathing habits may be hard to undo. The more invested a person is in maintaining the habit, the more difficult it will be to undo it.
- Once a habit is entrenched, it becomes the new normal way of breathing.
Sometimes, the body changes breathing habits to counteract effects of a systemic illness. This is the case in diabetes or when there is lung damage. If you are in this situation, you can and should still learn to improve your breathing patterns with support from a properly trained doctor/practitioner.
Is there a perfect breath?
Yes, the perfect breath is the one that optimally supports the body’s physiological balance at all times. The easiest of these to measure is the oxygen/carbon dioxide concentration of the blood. The optimal physiological levels are at 95-98% oxygen concentration and 40 mm Hg carbon dioxide concentration. Anything outside this range means your body is performing at suboptimal levels. The problem is, it feels normal!
Occasionally, I have a client in physiological balance but dysfunctional breathing mechanics. For example, CO2 levels might be normal, but a chest breathing habit is present. In these cases, I would still recommend retraining a diaphragmatic habit to support nervous system function and prevent future musculoskeletal imbalance.
What does this mean for me?
Should you suspect a breathing dysfunction or have unexplained symptoms, get yourself tested for a breathing dysfunction.
Is there a good reason to control your breathing?
Sure, we do all sorts of thing to improve our health, performance and well-being. Controlling your breathing for a short time for a purpose is one of the most effective ways to change your heart rate, alertness levels, energy levels and emotional state. However, trust that your body can do it by itself just fine if you allow it to, and that it will probably do lot better job than you ever could. After all, the respiratory system was primed by billions of years of evolution.
What about HRV?
Heart rate variability may be seen as a proxy. Coherent and resonant heart rhythms are certainly extremely beneficial physiological states that promotes health and well-being. But that does not mean that breathing like this all the time is possible or even beneficial.