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How do you breathe?

09/04/2024
Angela Gottardi

Do you ever pay attention to your breath? We perform tens of thousands of breathing acts throughout the day, it accompanies every moment of our waking and sleeping, but we never pay attention to it, worse still we take it for granted.

Well, now stop for a moment, close your eyes and notice how you are breathing….

Are you breathing through your nose or through your mouth? Are you breathing fast or are you holding your breath? Are you breathing with your chest or with your belly? Are you calm and relaxed or are your shoulders stiff and your belly tense? Do you take half breaths or are they wide and slow?

Let’s take a step back, in school we were taught that during breathing we take in oxygen, without which we cannot live, and eliminate carbon dioxide which is the waste substance of breathing. So far, so easy. But as always, in the human body things are never simple and even less linear.

But what if I told you that oxygen is the fundamental gas that allows biochemical processes in cells to start, but that without carbon dioxide, oxygen cannot enter the cells and that therefore carbon dioxide is to be eliminated but not too much? And that in some specific points of our body there are sensors predisposed to recognise how much oxygen and how much carbon dioxide there is in the body and that these centres are directly connected to the areas of the brain that control the emotional state (limbic system)?

That if we have anxiety, fear, are confused we breathe wrongly but also that if we breathe wrongly we think wrongly, have anxiety, are confused?

So?

And therefore ‘he who breathes better’ lives better and controls his emotions better, it is no coincidence that in oriental culture the breath is held in great esteem and is used as a true instrument of healing and energetic modulation.

At this point, we need to define what it means to breathe well and what the most common mistakes are. Breathing at rest should be continuous, i.e. without apnoea, relaxed, deep and slow. Instead, most people breathe with the upper chest, with short, rapid breaths. It also happens very frequently that when one is concentrated or on the spines one is in apnoea.

This type of rapid, shallow thoracic breathing mechanics overloads the neck and shoulder muscles, generating tension and pain, and at best allows little oxygen to be taken in; at worst it leads to true hyperventilation, like what happens, in its most extreme version, in a panic attack. It is a type of breathing that makes us very alert, pre-activates our orthosympathetic nervous system and thus what we now know to be the stress system.

In a situation of presumed or real danger, the first thing we do is hold our breath, it is automatic, then we start to hyperventilate, but this only makes the situation worse because it makes us even more confused and leads us towards panic.

On the other hand, slow, deep, hence diaphragmatic breathing is a type of breathing that allows a lot of oxygenation of the tissues and instead activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our companion for calm and rest.

So let us return to the initial question, how do we breathe?

Let’s try sitting comfortably or lying down, let’s put one hand on our chest, one on our sternum and one on our belly, which hand ‘moves’? Do they both move? Only one, which one? can we only move the hand on our belly?

If you can’t, don’t worry, it just takes a little practice. Give yourself time, concentrate and try to inhale through your nose, inflate your belly and exhale through your nose. Repeat this succession for a few minutes. It will gradually become more familiar and you will be able to breathe with your diaphragm (with your belly) even while standing, then you will have to be able to do it while sitting on the bike while riding!

This is indeed the message to take home, there is a way to calm down when we are agitated, there is also a way to stay much clearer and ward off anxiety in critical situations.

All we have to do is Breathe.

Angela Gottardi Osteopath

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