There is nothing new about the importance of breathing. Just a few minutes of oxygen deprivation is enough to destroy the brain’s ability to process incoming information forever. However, it isn´t just important THAT we breathe, but also HOW we breathe. If the way we breathe is just slightly out of balance, over time it will lead to severe negative consequences, since we breathe so much each and every day.
Our breathing mirrors what is going on in our bodies—our thoughts and feelings, whether we are still or on the move, etc.
By taking control of our breathing we can influence our thoughts and feelings, our internal organs, such as the heart and brain, and our bodily functions such as muscle movements, digestion and the immune system.
Impaired breathing habits
If you answered yes to any of the questions above, learning to improve your breathing pattern could provide you with significant health benefits.
Poor breathing habits are actually very common. We breathe fast, shallow, holds our breath, takes big breaths etc. But most people don’t realize that their own breathing is not as good as it could be.
Take a look at the list below. You may be surprised to see that any of these activities is an indication that your breathing habit is poor:
- Clearing your throat ever so often (throat-clearing is a form of breathing)
- Sighs frequently (before we sigh we take a big breath)
- Holding your breath while you concentrate
- Talk fast (which also means that you breathe fast)
- Take big breaths before you are about to say something
- Keep your mouth open while you exercise and do other types of physical activity
- Breathe fast and shallow when you are stressed
- Snoring when you sleep (snoring is a form of breathing)
Our most common breathing patterns
The two main types of impaired respiration are: a) over-breathing, and b) irregular breathing. Over-breathing comprises all breathing patterns below, except for the first one, and means that the respiration exceeds our body’s needs.
Irregular breathing comprises breathing patterns 4, 5 and 6 and involves coughing, sniffling, sighing, holding our breath, taking large breaths before talking, or clearing our throat, etc. We can belong to one or both groups.
Let us take a look at the six most common breathing patterns.
1. Optimal breathing
Optimal breathing corresponds to the needs of our body at any given moment. At rest, we breathe in and out through our nose in a slow, low, relaxed, rhythmic, and silent manner. On inhalation, the upper part of our chest remains relatively still while the lower part extends more, in a smooth way – forward, backward and sideways. The stomach might also extend forward slightly. These movements allow the bottom of the lungs to be filled with air.
Furthermore, exhalation is passive, and the muscles are inactive while the diaphragm, our most important breathing muscle, returns to its original position. The lower part of the rib cage collapses and the stomach recedes.
At rest we take around 6–12 breaths per minute when breathing at an optimal level, out of which we roughly inhale 2–3 seconds, exhale 3–4 seconds, with an innate pause of 2–3 seconds before initiating the next inhalation.
This, in effect, means that exhalation, including the associated pause, is longer than the inhalation, which increases our ability to recover. Subsequently, inhalation is automatically improved as the air, to a greater extent, is brought to the lower parts of the lungs.
When over-breathing, we breathe 16-22 breaths per minute. The breaths are bigger, with each breath containing 50-100 percent more air than is optimal. Instead of half a liter per breath, each breath contains 0.7 to 1.0 liters.
Over-breathing is actually a low-grade, masked form of hyperventilation, and we are usually unaware when we breathe too much.
When panting, we breathe 22-30 breaths per minute and are severely over-breathing by breathing fast and high up in the chest. The mouth is often open, and we adopt a hunched posture.
When we breathe through the mouth, we generally push the chin slightly forward and upward in order to keep the airways open. Furthermore, the upper chest heaves when breathing and the accessory muscles in the neck and shoulders are active.
4. Chest Breathing
When chest breathing we breathe 16-22 breaths per minute in short, shallow breaths high up in the chest. Each breath is smaller than optimal, and we feel as if we are not breathing at all. Even though we are breathing shallowly, we are still over-breathing because our body compensates for the “nearly non-existent” breathing by sighing, yawning, or taking a bigger breaths now and then. These are all big breaths and even if we only take them once every few minutes, they are enough to sustain over-breathing.
When seated we often adopt a slightly slumped posture, and “desk breathe” with the consequence that the space available for the diaphragm to work properly decreases. “Desk breathing” is common in people that work in offices. Over time, a hunched posture becomes our natural upright posture.
5. Chaotic Breathing
Chaotic breathing is irregular, heavy and loud. Usually we do not realize that we breathe at the same time as we are making these sounds. It is impossible to make a sound without breathing simultaneously. Noises may be made both when inhaling and exhaling, i.e., throat clearing, sighing, yawning, groaning, huffing and puffing, coughing, snoring and sniffling.
Commonly, those of us who breathe chaotically take big breaths before talking and/or gasp for air and speak quickly — what I call “newsreporter-syndrome.” Breathing chaotically creates disruption and has a negative effect on our body.
6. Periodic Breathing
Periodic breathing is characterized by intermittent breaks in between intervals of rapid breathing when our breathing becomes stuck, i.e., we “forget” to exhale, often when concentrating. The mouth is often kept open. Many of us notice when our breathing is stuck and may feel as though we are not breathing at all.
What we are not aware of is that when we start to breathe again we will compensate by over-breathing. Sleep apnea is the medical term for stuck breathing when we sleep.
Since stuck breathing during the daytime mostly occurs when we concentrate, we could call it concentration apnea. Other terms could be text message apnea, computer apnea or stress apnea.