Breathing is one of the most vital functions we perform each day. But, when stress arises, our breathing patterns shift, leading to shallow breathing. These short, shallow breaths primarily engage the upper chest, which sets off a cascade of responses in the body that, when coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, wreak havoc on the mind and body. 

We are hard-wired to survive. 

Within us is the fight, flight, or freeze response that is designed to provide the adrenaline necessary for survival in life-threatening situations. This amazing response to danger gives us a surge of energy to survive. The problem is we don’t always need to be in that state, which is what happens when those breathing patterns remain shallow. One of the consequences of this physiological response is increased levels of cortisol. Chronic high cortisol has been shown to increase activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain in the limbic system (more on this later) as well as increased blood sugar, weight gain, suppressed immune system, increased inflammation, and digestive issues. 

On the other hand, deep, slow breaths engage the lower lobes of the lungs, activating the body’s parasympathetic system, which sends messages to the brain and body to calm and soothe, signaling that everything is under control, and we can relax, mitigating daily chronic stress.

The Brain and the Breath

The amygdala, nestled in the limbic system of the brain, plays a pivotal role in emotional processing and regulation. It serves as an emotional gatekeeper for responses linked to survival instincts like fear and aggression, part of the fight or flight response.  Importantly, the amygdala is also home to stored emotional memories, including those from traumatic experiences.

Connected intricately with the body’s physiological responses, the amygdala can modulate behaviors such as breathing patterns. When we’re faced with stressors, even the little ones, and stored traumas, the amygdala can trigger alterations in breathing, ranging from shallow, rapid breaths to deep, calming ones. This modulation occurs partly through its connections with the diaphragm, the primary muscle involved in breathing located beneath the rib cage.

These persistent emotional states, such as fear and anger, as well as stored trauma, can exacerbate these breathing patterns. Prolonged periods of inactivity, such as our sedentary lifestyle, can lead to the diaphragm adopting a contracted position, hindering the ability to engage in deep, relaxing breaths. This creates a complex relationship between emotional states, the amygdala, and physiological responses.

The Mind-Body Connection

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Comprehending how breath regulates the body’s systems allows us to use breath as a stress mitigation tool. Deep, long, slow breaths allow the body ample time to utilize oxygen efficiently and restore carbon dioxide levels. By incorporating practices such as pranayama (prana = breath yama = control) which involve pausing, holding, or extending the breath, we can enhance breath length and quality, touching cell receptor sites deep in the lungs that reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.

Along with the ability to calm the nervous system, deep breathing has a multitude of physiological benefits, including increased mitochondrial energy, stem cell growth, reduced anxiety, lower blood pressure, enhanced endothelial growth factors, protection against DNA damage, and improved neuroplasticity – the rewiring of ingrained behavior patterns in the brain.

Utilizing Pranayama Techniques: Amplify the benefits of breathing and deepen the mind-body connection.

Step one in awareness of breathing is to close the mouth. All breathing should be in/out through the nose. Nasal breathing filters toxins, humidifies nasal passages, and enhances circulation. Breathing in/out through the nose simply rests awareness on that breath as the belly expands. Notice how the breath moves in the body and simply just become more aware of the breath. 

Dirgha Pranayama (Three-Part Breath): Dirgha pranayama involves consciously directing the breath into three distinct areas of the lungs: the lower abdomen, ribcage, and upper chest. This technique expands lung capacity and promotes relaxation, making it ideal for reversing shallow breathing patterns. First, inhalation expands the abdomen. After several breaths expanding the belly, let the inhale expand to the ribs. After several breaths into the abdomen and ribs, find an even deeper expansion into the upper chest. Belly, lungs, upper lungs – repeating for 3-5 minutes. Ensure the exhale is complete. 

Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing): Nadi Shodhana balances the flow of energy in the body by alternating between the nostrils during inhalation and exhalation and finding breath retention at the top of inhale, and bottom of exhale. This practice calms the mind, reduces stress, and enhances respiratory function, making it effective for alleviating shallow breathing.

Bhramari Pranayama (Bee Breath): Bhramari pranayama involves producing a humming sound during exhalation, which soothes the nervous system and promotes relaxation. This practice calms the mind, reduces anxiety, and fosters inner peace, making it a valuable tool for combating shallow breathing. This tool is incredibly beneficial to calm the mind/body during physical duress. 

It should be noted that all breaths should occur in and out of the nose. 

Understanding and addressing shallow breathing patterns is essential for managing stress and optimizing overall well-being. By cultivating awareness of our breathing and implementing techniques to promote deep, intentional breathing, we can unlock the profound healing potential of this innate, physiological process.

Check out a free breathwork tutorial by Certified Breathwork Facilitator Hali Benson of Sioux City. You can find it on Erin’s YouTube Channel: @erinkuehl8007. 

Hali regularly offers breathwork classes at Evolve Yoga and Wellness and throughout the city. 

Since 2012, Erin has been the driving force behind Evolve Yoga and Wellness Center, a holistic healing hub in the heart of Historic 4th Street that integrates Yoga and mindfulness into transformative classes designed to nurture your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

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