Human beings, like most animals, have evolved to react reflexively to the perception of threat.
These reflexes flood your body with the inflammatory hormones and chemicals it needs to fight the threat, or flee from it. Useful if you need a shot of adrenalin to react in a dangerous situation. Not helpful if you’re just tired, overstretched and stressed. And deep breathing exercises are not the answer.
Overtime, this becomes habitual behaviour. Our ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) alters our breathing patterns when experiencing trigger events. This readies the person to take action.
Mostly this happens due to perception of a stressful event, not an actual event. The breathing pattern switches to one of ‘overbreathing’. The upper chest moves in a rapid and shallow pattern. Oxygen intake becomes the priority. This is a state called hypervigilance.
What is Overbreathing?
Overbreathing is when you breathe in more than you breathe out. You will most likely have experienced the problem of overbreathing but few people know they're doing it. Around seven out of ten people are thought to overbreathe. Surely, the more oxygen you get the better? Well, not quite. Overbreathing reduces the oxygen supply to your brain. Just one minute of overbreathing triggers up to a 40 per cent loss of oxygen. Breathing Pattern Disorder (BPD) includes Overbreathing, Hyperventilation Syndrome (HVS) and Hypocapnea (low CO2 syndrome).
The Unrecognised Epidemic
I’ve been working with breath and awareness for many decades. One of my team's conclusions at New Medicine Group is that overbreathing is probably one of the greatest unrecognised health epidemics. This includes Breathing Pattern Disorder, mouth breathing and breath holding.
If you want to appreciate how important natural breathing is, try not breathing for just three minutes and see how you feel. Humans can survive for three weeks without food, three days without water but just three minutes without breathing.
Most people with anxiety and depression are overbreathing. These disorders are almost always involved in MUPS (Medically Unexplained Physical Symptoms), PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and chronic pain, especially pelvic pain (CPP) and fibromyalgia (FMS).
Why is Overbreathing Harmful?
More than 30 years of clinical observation shows the link between overbreathing and a host of medical symptoms. These include: sleepless nights, tension headaches, palpitations, hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome. As well as, muscle pains, fatigue, sleep apnoea, asthma, breathlessness, chest pain, sexual dysfunction, allergic responses, and anxiety.
Use This Exercise to Change Your Breathing Pattern!
One simple thing you can do is to breathe out, as effortlessly as possible, for longer than you breathe in. Make this your mantra:
“If in doubt, breathe out”
This can feel frightening in the moment, but once you've learned to recognize this pattern you can learn to change it. The first step is to shift focus from the inbreath to the outbreath. Breathing out slowly, using as little effort as possible, allows oxygen and carbon dioxide to balance. This pacifies the stress response.
Not focussing on the breathing itself is essential to enabling a normal and natural breathing pattern to emerge. You don’t need to count the breaths or worry about how your chest or belly are moving. Don’t focus on whether you're breathing ‘enough’. Your breathing is as you need it to be.
Rather than trying to control the breath, surrender to an effortless outbreath. Forget about the inbreath (you'll be fine, few people have too little oxygen). Gently breathe in through the nose and for this exercise you can breathe out through a relaxed and slightly open mouth.
O2/CO2 Regulation Exercise
Sit down somewhere comfortable, relaxed but not collapsed. Drop your shoulders, allow your neck, jaw and face to relax. Allow your breathing to become soft, slow, easy and natural. Inhale only as much as you need to right now (which is not much in this moment). Let go and allow the breath to escape through a slightly open mouth, without effort or force. Keep doing this for as long as feels comfortable and until you notice a relaxation response arise. Stop if you feel things are going too fast. You can repeat this several times a day and as often as you need.
More Tips For Better Breathing
There are also technological aids available. Wearable technology, such as our genius SENSATE device for example, can interface with parts of the nervous system that manage the stress response. Placed on the chest, the portable device produces engineered infrasonic tones that are felt rather than heard. This enables users to experience digital music as whole-body sound. It relaxes the whole body and will enhance the benefits of breathing exercises.
I developed the Sensate technology as a viable solution to the problem of overbreathing. By helping people get better at training their personal relaxation response, they can resist the habit of breathing in more than they breathe out. Simple, but not easy to do.
Although this sounds simple, focusing on the breath can be challenging under certain circumstances, and exercises like these are not always appropriate. If you’re feeling anxious, trying to think hard about your breathing can make you feel worse. In these cases, using herbal or pharmaceutical aids to help calm the stress response can be more beneficial. Walking, being in nature, contact with friends, herbal teas (like chamomile or peppermint), can help return your body to a state of calm. Then you can benefit from a breathing exercise.
Remember – “If in doubt, breathe out”
Stefan Chmelik Sensate inventor and Founder of BioSelf Technology