Bitesize Health Hack #1

You are invited to…

Breathe Deeply

What if you could enjoy less stress2,4, reduce anxiety1,4, improve immune function4, think more clearly5,12, build a stronger core5, get better sleep6 AND burn more body fat6, all by just breathing as nature intended? What if a simple, easy change to your breathing could give you more control over your life8?

Let’s have a little play… stand in front of a mirror and place one hand on your upper chest and another on your belly button.  Take a few normal breaths (through the nose if possible), then slow down and deepen your breathing.  Gift yourself a moment or two here to simply breathe and observe. Notice if either of your hands are moving as you breathe? Are your shoulders moving?

If the hand on your chest is moving at all, then really draw each breath slowly through your nose and chest and deep down into your tummy, encouraging the belly button, and your lower hand, to rise and fall expansively, while the upper hand (on the chest) becomes completely still.

It may take a little practice, but as you get into the flow of slow, deep belly breaths, your heart rate will slow down1 and your blood pressure will lower1 and you will start to feel more relaxed as you start to disengage your fight or flight or survival brain1,2.

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THE HACK

Take long slow, belly breaths EVERY time you think about it

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The Challenges

OK, I get it… brain fog… who’s going to remember to do belly breaths all day every day? The easiest solution is to just leave reminder Post-it notes around where you spend most of your time. They don’t even have to say anything – you’ll know what they mean! Soon you won’t need them anymore – breathing into your belly will just be your natural state. You could also make it part of your bedtime ritual (another hack for another day). Ten long, slow belly breaths just before bed will promote better sleep 10.

When you’re stressed and anxious and need it most, it’s not always appropriate to take a time out. The good news is that with a bit of practise, you can do this even while somebody is breathing fire in your face and the only thing they’ll notice is the confusingly serene look in your eyes.

We’re used to keeping our tummies pulled in, so you might find a bit (or a lot!) of resistance to allowing it to bulge outwards. Let that go.

You might find yourself trying too hard, or even hyperventilating… remind yourself to relax - keep it slow and easy, don’t force anything.

Beyond that, there really isn’t anything you need to do here. I mean, you’re breathing already (well at least I hope you are) and you don’t need to stop what you’re doing to breathe – you just need to remember to do it a little differently.

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My take on the

SCIENCEY SHIZZLE

(if you’re all about “But why…?”)

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Think about what happens when you’re facing down a sabre tooth tiger - or at least the modern-day version of one, an irate boss/teacher/family member. The instant that danger presents, you drop straight into survival (fight or flight) mode1. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and your body is flooded with hormones to help you fight or fly, your breathing becomes light and fast and your heart rate and blood pressure increase1. Your body is primed to deliver a killing blow or to blast outta there like the Flash. Now this is a fantastic physiological benefit when you are actually facing a sabre tooth tiger, but generally-speaking, it’s not appropriate to kick your boss on the ankles or roundhouse Aunt Martha to the kerb. Nor is it a positive on your career progression to run screaming from an overwhelming meeting room. This means we just don’t get the chance to ‘use up’ the hormones released whenever we have a stress response. To make matters worse, if we’re living a typical modern-day life, we’re often facing down some form of sabre tooth tiger from the moment we open one bleary, resistant eyelid each morning till those last worry-filled moments on the pillow at night.

But what does this have to do with deep belly breathing, you may be asking? Well… shallow, upper chest breathing is part of the stress response2, so if you’re breathing this way simply from habit, you could be intensifying the negative effects of chronic stress on your body and also promoting more anxiety2,7. Deep, slow breathing effectively short-circuits the stress response and instead engages the parasympathetic nervous system (or “rest and digest” response)8. Engaging the parasympathetic nervous system lowers blood pressure and heart rate and reduces stress hormones in the body, leaving you feeling calmer and less anxious2.

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In addition, when the body doesn’t have to focus on saving you from sabre-tooth tigers, it can direct more effort to the rest and digest functions in the body, releasing hormones to help with digestion and other vital processes in the body1. This means more nutrients and oxygen in the blood1, leading to more efficient cell repair and growth, enhanced organ function and more energy.

We know that chronic stress has a negative impact on the immune function and a number of studies demonstrate the link between deep, slow breathing and improved immunity2,9.

We also know that chronic stress can contribute to obesity, either directly (for example cortisol increases appetite) or indirectly through less sleep and exercise1, so breaking that chronic stress response may well help you lose body fat.

Another, more anatomical benefit of deep breathing is that the muscles that assist proper respiration also form some of your deepest core muscles. Breathing exercises can train these muscles in much the same way you would train bicep curls, resulting in stronger respiratory (and thus core) muscles5. On the other hand, shallow chest breathing recruits and tightens muscles around the shoulder, neck and back, resulting in bad posture, neck pain, headaches and increased risk of injury3. It’s no coincidence we hold stress in tight shoulders.

There is one more little thing that the survival brain does when you’re in fight or flight mode - it actually shuts down your ‘thinking brain’. That may seem counterintuitive, until you remember how long it normally takes to make a decision. That sabre-tooth tiger is probably not going to wait around while you carry out a full assessment of the available escape routes and distance to the nearest tree, while consulting Google as to whether sabre tooth tigers can climb trees. This lesser known effect of the stress response might give you a clue as to why we say stupid things in awkward situations8. A study from Trinity College7 looks at the effect of breathing on the release of noradrenaline (one of the stress hormones), saying “There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer."

While all this is going on, there is something else fundamental happening when you take control of your breathing. You’re jumping into the driver’s seat of a function that is usually done by your survival brain, which is part of your autonomic nervous system. This also happens to be the part of your brain that carries out those automatic habits you find so hard to break – those habits are your autopilot doing it’s very best to take care of you based on the data it has to hand. So, if you’re going to break any habit, it helps to first fully appreciate how hard your survival brain is working to keep you safe (albeit it a little misguided) , thank it and then consciously ask it to move aside so that you can take the wheel, with actions that are aligned more fully to your heartfelt intent. This is not woo, this is neuroscience and I touch on it briefly here, because, in addition to all the physiological benefits of slow, deep breathing, this hack is also a first step in you starting to take control of your actions and habits. So, when it’s feeling a little challenging to keep breathing deeply, remind yourself that you are simply practising taking back control of your actions and your life. As Carl Jung said… “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” By this simple act of controlling your breath, you take your first steps into making the unconscious conscious and directing your own life. And isn’t that a pretty great first step to take?

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References
  1. The clever folks from Harvard Health explain the stress response (survival/fight or flight mode) in more detail in this article, as well as some great tips at the end to counter chronic stress. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
  2. Great article from the state Victorian Government in Australia explaining the link between breathing and the stress response and how to control your breath to reduce stress and anxiety.
    https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/breathing-to-reduce-stress
  3. Article from the chilled crew at Headspace with more detail on the effects of shallow breathing https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/08/15/shallow-breathing-whole-body/
  4. More from the Harvard folks about using deep breathing to disengage the stress response
    https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response
  5. A great little study comparing the core strengthening effects of breathing (and stretching) exercises with common abdominal exercises (like crunches) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4668176/
  6. A study looking at the impact of slow, deep breathing before sleep https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25234581/
  7. A Trinity College study, demonstrating a link between breath control and cognitive function https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180510101254.htm
  8. Some really cool videos by Neurocognitive Psychologist Gregory Caremans explain the flight or fight concept beautifully https://www.udemy.com/course/stress-management-40-easy-ways-to-deal-with-stress/
  9. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity (covers wide physiological benefits, but particularly references inflammation and immune function) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6189422/
  10. An article covering studies that demonstrate the benefits of breathing correctly on improving sleep and decreasing anxiety.  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/proper-breathing-brings-better-health/Scientific studies further illustrating the link between deep, slow breathing and stress reduction
  11. The Effectiveness of Diaphragmatic Breathing Relaxation Training for Reducing Anxiety https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27553981/?from_term=%22Diaphragmatic+Breathing%22&from_pos=6
  12. Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review (Sep 2019) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31436595
  13. Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/