“I’m happy to say that there’s nothing wrong with the function of your heart.” The doctor sat in the chair opposite mine in the examination room following my nuclear stress test. Happy to hear the news, I was still a bit perplexed. “Really? That’s great. What’s causing the pangs of pain?” I asked.
Pausing, the doctor tilted his head. “You’ve been through a lot this year, and the grief you’ve endured is what falls into the cliché category of a ‘broken heart.’ And while you don’t have any medical heart issues, a broken heart can cause all types of side effects. The one you’re dealing with is heart pains from a lack of breathing.”
“Breathing?” I was shocked. I was breathing. How else could I still be alive? “What in the world do you mean? Of course, I’m breathing.”
The truth I learned that day was that skip breathing is increasingly endemic in our society. Short, shallow breaths — called skip breathing — heighten the stress of ordinary life, from running late to a meeting to addressing a failed relationship or a health crisis. And when poor breathing goes unchecked for an extended period, a laundry list of chronic diseases can result.
From the time a doctor pats a child’s backside to prompt that first gasp of air, people go through life … breathing. But when stress knocks on the door, we hold our breath, literally, and easily fall into the habit of skip breathing, prompting various unwanted side effects, including severe heart pain. Additionally, the connection between our mental health and physical health is a strong one.
This past year has cast a focus on healthy lungs and made us conscious of breathing in a way we never have before due to COVID-19. With our new mask wearing society, healthy breathing is just not so simple anymore. The mask creates the feeling of a mini sauna wrapped around our nose and mouth; thus, it’s easy to feel constricted while inhaling and exhaling.
It’s reported that we take some 17,000 breaths a day, and for most of those breaths, we are only using the top third of our lungs. Our bodies need the lungs’ full capacity, and shallow breaths just do not provide enough oxygen. Deep breathing relieves stress by supplying the oxygen we need for our bodies, mind, and nervous system. And when the lower lungs are engaged, the parasympathetic nerve receptors located there instruct the brain to release calming hormones, countering the “fight or flight” instinct caused by stress.
Some of our breathing problems derive from the fact that our bodies have changed. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans had larger mouths and nasal passages — all the better for running and killing game, which was the only way to survive back then. In addition to a smaller and constrained breathing apparatus, we lose 12 percent of lung capacity when we reach middle age, and it progressively gets worse. The best indicator for a long life is not genes, diet, or exercise — but lung capacity.
Also, it is important to breathe through your nose, which raises oxygen intake by 18 percent and reduces the risk of respiratory problems. This automatically engages the diaphragm and deeper breathing, activating those lower lungs and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Nasal breathing filters out foreign particles (like dust, pollen, etc.), preventing much of them from entering the lungs, and it also releases nitric oxide, which helps to widen blood vessels and improves oxygen circulation in the body. Breathing through the mouth, on the other hand, reduces the amount of moisture hitting the lungs, and that dry air causes irritation. It additionally activates the sympathetic nervous system, which tells the brain to release cortisol, the stress hormone.
Most solutions to physical issues require a change in lifestyle. Or cost money, such as paying for a gym membership, physical therapy, doctor fees, or pharmaceuticals. This solution is free … and easy. Don’t be like me and pay the expense of a stress test only to be told you need to stop, smell the roses, and breathe.
In fact, you can fix this issue right this second. Close your eyes, take a large breath of air through your nose until you feel your lungs fill completely, hold it for five seconds, then slowly, slowly release the air through your mouth. Do this five times. Slow and full breathing like this benefits the circulation system, benefits the heart, and returns your body to a state of efficiency. It has been shown that just a few minutes a day of breathing like this can reduce blood pressure significantly.
Did you do it? If not, go ahead. And now be honest, don’t you feel the difference? It’s like bursting the suction cup of stress by simply taking advantage of a free gift in life — air. This regular routine will release physical tension caused by stress and ward off that stress permanently by changing the circuitry of the brain. So follow this breathing technique, then pay attention to when your shallow breathing sneaks back in, which it will. You need practice to improve your breathing capacity, so devise a strategy to help.
The five-breath exercise should be done multiple times a day:
when you wake up before getting out of bed
while waiting for your morning toast to pop up
while gripping your steering wheel while stuck in traffic (then I bet your grip will loosen!)
before opening your computer to start your day
before answering a call that you’d rather ignore
while waiting in a long checkout line at a store
before yelling at your kids, who are fighting over the TV remote
before opening a stack of bills
before opening the door at the doctor’s office.
Josee Madison, owner of Palmetto Yoga & Reiki Center, calls it mindful breathing. What is mindful breathing? “Mindful breathing means becoming aware of your breath,” Josee says. “The simple act of focusing on the breath usually slows down breathing patterns without even trying to change the way that you breathe, making you feel more relaxed. As you focus on how the air is moving in and out through the nose, it becomes a form of calming meditation. This breathing technique can promote a healthier heart and brain.”
Josee says that mindful breathing can also have an effect on insomnia. A study conducted in Taiwan reported that 20 minutes of slow breathing exercises before bed had a profound effect on the ability to go to sleep. Participants went to sleep quicker, woke up less often during the night, and went back to sleep faster if they did wake up before morning.
“The stress-reducing effects of mindful breathing can result in better sleep quality because it can lower your heart rate right before bed, which can have a relaxing and calming effect on the body,” Josee says.
She says another benefit is clearing the mind. “The increased intake of oxygen through mindful breathing helps purge the body of carbon dioxide, which benefits the brain and nervous system,” Josee says. “By giving yourself a calming focus, you can help clear your mind and reduce stress and anxiety, and that can improve your cognitive brain function.”
A third benefit is improved digestion. “The more you breathe deep, the healthier blood flow you will produce,” she adds, “which in turn promotes your organs to function more effectively, including your intestines.”
Lauren Truslow, owner of barre3, practices deep breathing as a way of life. “Somehow we have become chest breathers,” she says. “We avoid the expansion and contraction of our belly, which means we are not truly breathing into our diaphragm.”
Lauren finds great satisfaction in helping women find their best health through her barre classes. A core component is breathing. “Taking a deep breath means the belly will rise and fall,” Lauren says, “and you are exhaling the stress and tension from your body. Put your right hand to your heart, your left hand to your belly and truly take a deep breath!”
She says that the benefits of stretching and focusing on the breath at the end of a workout cannot be overestimated. “Giving back to our bodies through breath is so important for our mental health,” Lauren says. “As we talk through breathing at the end of our hour, clients can disconnect from everything else and truly take those big diaphragmatic breaths. We ask them to relax their shoulders away from their ears, melt into the floor, and breathe into their bellies slowly and fully.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life in countless ways and has changed our perspective on many aspects of life we used to take for granted — like breathing. The human body can survive 20 to 40 days without food, three days without water, but only three minutes without air. Each breath is important. So, slow down, breathe deep, and experience the joy and health benefits of reduced stress and tension.