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B is for Breathing

Author: null null Published: 18th May 2012 13:09


Some time ago I was listening to a very old man being interviewed on Radio 4 about his longevity. The presenter asked how he had lived so long - well over 100. The old man said a few things about his healthy lifestyle and then added ‘Oh and breathing'. The presenter laughed rather awkwardly, and let the comment go.

Breathing well is important for both physical and mental health. Our breathing patterns are linked to stress responses in our nervous system, and using the breath is one of the most effective ways to manage stress and anxiety. The brain accesses out breathing patterns to determine how safe or in danger we feel. So if we take shallow, erratic breaths from the chest, the brain will register danger. This is a very useful response when genuinely faced with a dangerous situation, but otherwise the stress response may be triggered unnecessarily because of the way we breathe.

Most people believe that breathing is something we do involuntarily, but by learning more about how we breathe we can begin to exert more control. In the short term, breathing exercises can help us quickly access our ‘relaxation response' so as to calm and soothe the nervous system. In the longer term we can use the breath to help our nervous system become more robust and resilient, better able to manage stress.

Breathing control improves performance for example in singing, public speaking, sport and physical activities. It's used to help women manage childbirth and pain management generally, to increase lung capacity, to improve brain function and help with relaxation.

In Mindfulness, now increasingly used in mental health care settings, the breath is used as a focus of concentration. This acts as an antidote to restlessness and anxiety, develops awareness of the mind's tendency to jump from one thing to another, and helps relaxation.

Here is a very simple breathing exercise you can practice regularly. The short video above shows me explaining the same exercise:

Breathe slowly and deeply in through your nose, and out through your mouth in a steady rhythm.

Try to make your breath out twice as long as your breath in.

To do this you may find it helpful to count slowly "one, two" as you breathe in, and "one, two, three, four" as you breathe out.

Practising the use of the diaphragm, the big muscle under the lungs, will help reduce the physical effects of anxiety.

When we're anxious we tend to breathe using the muscles at the top of our chest and shoulders.

So we breathe faster and feel more breathless and anxious.

You can check if you are using your diaphragm by feeling just below your breastbone (sternum) at the top of your abdomen.

If you give a little cough, you can feel the diaphragm push out here.

If you hold your hand here you should feel it move in and out as you breathe.

Try to relax your shoulders and upper chest muscles when you breathe.

With each breath out, consciously try to relax those muscles until you are mainly using your diaphragm to breathe.

Find out more about The Good Mental Health Company
Read more extracts from the A-Z Guide to Good Mental Health
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