walking on custard

The Insultingly Simple Guide to Breathing

22 Jun 2015

Photo by Carolina on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Breathing has become strangely fashionable in recent months.

Not only is everyone doing it, they’re talking about it a lot too:

“Just breathe”… “Focus on your breath”… “Breathe your way out of a panic attack”… “Our most powerful weapon against anxiety is our breath”…”BREATHE YOU FOOL, BREATHE, QUICK, THEY’RE COMING, WE HAVEN’T GOT MUCH TIME”

I’ve heard all of these so often lately.

Each time, it seems almost insulting to be told that “breathing” is the solution to my problems.

I mean, I breathe literally all the time. I do it in my sleep. What more do these breath-obsessed zealots want?!

And what’s with the weird obsession with breath in particular? Why is nobody telling me to focus on my digestion?

“Just digest. Let your acids gently release into your stomach and imagine them slowly dissolving all your problems.”

Well… it turns out – after an awkward conversation with my doctor – that you can’t control releasing your stomach acids no matter how hard you try.

So we’re stuck with breathing. For now.

Why Breathing Is Useful

Runaway feedback in the brain is typical of anxiety. We focus on something frightening, and then obsess over it.

Thinking on it again and again, each repetition magnifying the anxious effect.

Learning to break these feedback loops is crucial.

However, we can’t carry around a guaranteed distraction at all times, so it helps that we have a distraction built-in: breathing.

At any point we can assume manual control of our normally-automated breathing process. This focusses our attention away from the cause of our anxiety.

As well as escaping the feedback cycle, this weakens the long-term association in our minds between fear and the object of our anxiety, by instead associating it with something relaxing.

This works whether the underlying issue is a real imminent problem, an imagined scary future, or an unknown present reality; no matter what the problem is, we can always breathe.

Even if I’m being slowly lowered into a pit of snakes by my worst enemy, I can breathe!*

* I still hope this never happens, obviously.

However! The good things don’t end there!

Not only is breathing a great distraction for our overworked brains, it also has physical benefits.

When we’re stressed, our bodies go into hyperdrive. Remember, our organs are dumb – they don’t get to see what’s happening outside of the body. All they get is electrical signals, saying things like “GO FASTER” or “GO SLOWER”.

It’s impossible for our organs to individually tell whether these signals are because “OH MY GOD TIGERS AND SNAKES”, or if our brain is sending these signals for other reasons while we’re safely sat at home during an anxiety attack.

This means that deliberately slowing our breath helps by sending signals to our dumb, obedient organs that “everything is okay, there are no tigers here”.

So our heart rate slows down, our intestines stop wondering if they ought to be speeding things through faster, and our body is able to quiet down and return to rest and recovery mode.

(Probably a bunch of other stuff happens too, possibly involving blood pressure, but I’m Not A Biologist so I’m not sure. You get the point, though.)

That’s Nice And All, But I’m Already Breathing, So…

Hmmm. Hold on… We breathe all the time, so if breathing is so ‘magical’ why aren’t I getting all these super-benefits just from being alive and breathing?!

Inner critic: Wait a minute. Shouldn’t I be the one asking the rhetorical questions around here?

… is that a rhetorical question?

Inner critic: I’m just saying that since you’ve established me as someone who interrupts your blogposts to ask you questions, shouldn’t it be me that asks that question? Otherwise all your rubbish ‘character development’ is wasted.

Er, fine.

Inner critic: *clears throat* You MORON. You breathe all the time, so if breathing is so ‘magical’ why aren’t you getting all these super-benefits just from being alive?!

I’m glad you asked.

It’s pretty simple. Like everything we do, breathing is habitual.

And it’s very easy to get into ‘bad breathing’ habits.

This idea can be anxiety-inducing to anybody who is prone to anxiety.

I can imagine myself thinking “oh god, what if I have ‘bad breathing habits’… I bet I do, it’s the kind of thing I expect I’d do wrong. I’ve probably been breathing wrong for years. I’m DOOMED.”

You do not need to think like this.

It is very common to breathe in a non-ideal way. And it’s not the end of the world. And you can do some simple exercises to get back into the habit of better breathing.

What We Can Control

There are only a few things we can control when breathing:

  1. ‘Where’ you breathe

    We can breathe in one of two basic ways. Either our chest rises to inflate, or our belly does.

    The best way to breathe is by using the belly – this uses a big muscle under the lungs known as the diaphragm.

    For various reasons,* it’s more relaxing to the body to breathe this way than by using all the muscles in the ribs that are required for ‘chest breathing’.

    * which I’m not going to guess at…

    Try to become aware of your breathing at various points during the day, and notice whether your belly rises and falls as you breathe, or if it’s mainly your chest.

    If it’s your chest, do not worry about it: just simply switch the breathing to your belly.

    Pay attention for a bit, then resume focus on whatever you were doing. Eventually it will be habitual to breathe with your belly, and your body will be naturally more relaxed.

  2. ‘How much’ you breathe

    How deeply do we fill our lungs on each breath?

    When we’re stressed, we breathe shallowly – just a little air in and out each time. This is more work for the body for less reward, so it’s better to breathe a little more deeply.

    This doesn’t mean breathing SUPER DEEPLY: filling your lungs all the way is also not efficient.

    Just breathing to whatever capacity is comfortable for you is fine.

  3. ‘How fast’ you breathe

    Again, breathing too fast creates more work for the body.

    Just as with depth, you don’t need to go too slow. Aim for a comfortable rhythm, perhaps a little slower than you would be breathing automatically.

    (Of course, the priority is always to make sure you’re getting enough air – if it feels uncomfortable, speed back up!)

  4. ‘How’ you breathe

    Do you breathe through your nose or mouth? This may change depending on whether you’re breathing in or out.

    There are many opinions about the ‘best’ way to breathe.

    Some say it’s better to breathe in with your nose, out with your mouth. Some say always with your nose. Others even say it’s relaxing to alternate nostrils!

    Personally, I think it doesn’t matter much, though I can see an advantage to breathing in with your nose and out with your mouth: this requires more concentration, which means your brain is focussing on breathing and not on anxiety-inducing thoughts.

    Just do what’s comfortable – actually becoming aware of your breath can be helpful even if you don’t change how you’re doing it.

What To Actually Do

Try this:

Several times a day (and especially whenever you feel anxious!) become aware of how you’re breathing, and make a conscious effort to control your breathing.

Aim for a comfortable, moderately-deep, slow belly breath.

Breathe in through the nose, and out however you like.

Over time, you can make this a habit. Not only will your body be more naturally relaxed, you will have practised a powerful tool to use whenever you are in a situation you find difficult.

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

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