Stress Has Made Us Shallow Breathers. Here’s What It Does To Our Bodies.
The act of breathing is an involuntary act for living beings, one that we hardly ever pay any attention to, or put any effort into. We inhale and exhale at an unthinking pace and regularity that keeps us alive and healthy. But what if we’re doing it all wrong?
Many people are shallow breathers or upper-chest breathers — they inhale through their nose or mouth, but mostly trap the air in their chest, overusing their intercostal muscles between the ribs and their shoulder muscles, never allowing the air to fully reach the diaphragm. A successful breath, experts say, is one that reaches the belly, is deep, and fully fills the lungs. But very few people breathe with such care and diligence.
Why? One reason could be that a high-stress culture has normalized the need to stifle one’s emotions — be it shock, pain, or sorrow. “What happens when you hold back tears, stifle anger during a charged confrontation, tiptoe through a fearful situation, or try to keep pain at bay? Unconsciously, you hold your breath or breathe irregularly,” according to Harvard Health. Plus, humans are designed to take shallow breaths when they feel under threat or experience any intense emotion, because of an in-built fight-or-flight response that contracts our muscles and makes us tense, translating to us holding our breath.
“It can be anything from feeling nervous in a classroom or something that can be happening at home, and you start doing these micro-breath-holds, which morph into an adult dysfunctional breath pattern. It happens without us realizing it,” breath coach Aimee Hartley tells The Guardian. In this way, a temporary coping mechanism can become an adult habit, eventually encoding an unhealthy breathing pattern into an adult’s unthinking routine.
These short, quick breaths can induce stress, partly because of a lack of healthy, periodic flow of oxygen in the body, and because we’ve already come to associate shallow breathing with stress. This breathing-stress pattern is especially apparent when scrolling through social media, when the brain is constantly processing stressful information, leading to a perpetually tensed body that facilitates, normalizes anxious, shallow breath-holds. Experts say writing an email, or indulging in any kind of stressful communication, can also hold people over an edge, altering breathing patterns. In this way, stress begets shallow breathing, and shallow breathing begets more stress. Over the course of time, especially if one’s lifestyle remains unchanged, both of these tendencies become habitual.
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Another reason for the ubiquity of this unhealthy breathing pattern — one that predominantly affects women — is the imposition to be skinny, which has inculcated an almost reflexive need to suck in our stomach. This prevents people from inhaling deeply because contracting stomach muscles while trying to suck in belly fat keeps air out of the abdomen; it also normalizes chest breathing over time, eventually changing breathing habits long-term. For example, most people suck in their stomach while inhaling and push it out while exhaling, but it should be the other way around — fill your belly with air with inhaling, and contract the abdomen while exhaling.
Why is this a better breathing method? Deep breathing facilitates complete oxygen exchange, which slows down the heartbeat and helps stabilize blood pressure. It also removes the fight-or-flight response from the body, and replaces it with the ‘rest and digest’ response, Hartley says, which lets the body know that we’re safe, that then reduces levels of stress hormones in the body.
This manner of breathing has already been standardized as a mechanism to soothe anxiety and help people handle panic attacks. Focusing on one’s breathing, while taking deep breaths to calm the body down, has been touted by experts as an effective method to combat a frenzied state. So, while we’ve normalized deep, focused breathing to tackle extreme fluctuations in mental health, we still haven’t gotten around to applying the same principle to many people’s resting breathing state, which may not involve rapid breathing, but is still mostly shallow and incomplete.
Shallow breathing patterns, and the stress that accompanies it, reinforces a continuous cycle that is difficult to break. According to Hartley, the first step is to become aware of your breathing pattern, and then find breathing exercises that center full, deep breaths designed to facilitate calmness and relaxation.