Take a deep breath, put your feet up and relax... as you discover how breathing can have such a big impact on mental health and how mental health, in turn shapes our breath.
We breathe how we feel
Our emotions directly affect the breath - think of the last time you felt stressed, you can probably recall the short, sharp breath or maybe it felt tight or restricted. Or when you watched a horror film and held your breath as the main character ignored all of your warnings not to go up the stairs! Then you gasped when the door slammed shut and breathed a sigh of relief when it was over.
Body, mind and breath
I have been working as a yoga therapist for several years and I have observed time and time again that when someone is unwell, it shows up in how they breathe. Occasionally people consult with me about their breathing because they are having panic attacks, feeling breathless, have diminished lung capacity or are finding it a real effort to breathe. But most of the time people are motivated by other issues like pain, insomnia, anxiety, depression or digestive disturbances and may be unaware that their breathing also reflects the story they are telling me. Quite often I could describe a client's problems just by observing their breath. Clients who are in pain tend to hold their breath, as if trying to keep it away from their pain. Those with insomnia often develop irregular breathing. Anxiety breathing patterns tend towards fast shallow chest breathing, often accompanied by muscular tension and rigidity whereas depression tends towards slow shallow breathing with the postural presentation of collapsed chest and rounded shoulders making deep, satisfying breathing all the more difficult.
What's the best way to breathe?
Breathing is at its best when it is flexible and not fixed or forced. Our breathing should naturally be very different if we are running for a bus, taking a bath or soothing our children as these activities require varying levels of alertness, oxygen and blood sugar and energy in different places. However, once we are at ease our breathing best serves us if it is regular, moderately deep and relaxed, becoming a little softer the deeper we rest.
Starving for breath, hungry for life
Breathing is also culturally and psychologically influenced. Women are particularly prone to walking around with their abdomen drawn in, not allowing the natural healthy waves of a bountiful breath to flow there, instead forcing it into the upper lungs (more like the anxiety breathing pattern). There are many layers of psychology to this phenomenon which run deeper than simply trying to achieve a superficial aesthetic yet the end result is the same: we starve ourselves of the energy of life: oxygen. On the most basic level our needs are not being met. When we hold or restrict our breath we are holding ourselves away from the richness of life, our emotional self and the wholeness of our human body which subtly pulsates when the breath is free. A pattern in the breath usually mirrors patterns in thinking, emotional processing and behaviours and can often be a useful starting point for treatment, particularly in mental health.
The breathing muscle
We can't talk about breathing without discussing the importance of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large sheet of muscle that separates (or connects) the chest space containing the heart and lungs from the abdomen. This muscle is well designed to do most of our breathing most of the time. It rarely gets tired, unlike the smaller muscles around the shoulders, neck and upper chest which get tight and achy from improper breathing, possibly contributing to migraines and headaches.
During inhalation, the diaphragm should contract and flatten downwards, the lungs inflate, the ribs expand out and up. This causes the abdomen to softly swell as the abdominal contents are pushed down and forward, very beneficial for healthy digestion. The movement of the diaphragm gently massages the heart muscle and tones the vagus nerve which instigates a relaxation response throughout the body reducing inflammation, anxiety, stress and associated symptoms. The heart beats a little faster and we are slightly more alert giving us a feeling of being awake, ready, excited and energised. As we breathe out, the mechanics are reversed - the ribs soften back down, the diaphragm relaxes up doming into the ribs, the heart goes back into its original seat and beats a little slower.
So, why is this important to mental health?
As we have seen, during anxiety there is a tendency to breathe shallow and fast which increases the amount of oxygen in our body as well as speeding up the heart. Oxygen makes us feel alert and awake yet in excess it causes confusion, dizziness, anxiety, panic and insomnia. In this case we would benefit from taking longer out breaths to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the body and slow the heart. Carbon dioxide has a sedative effect which makes us feel calmer.
During the slow, shallow breathing of depression we develop excess carbon dioxide and a lack of oxygen so that the pleasant calming effect becomes drowsiness, heaviness, lethargy, lack of energy and motivation. In this case a therapeutic breathing practice might include emphasis on the inhale or on yoga postures which help involve the diaphragm and improve posture so fuller inhalation is possible.
Changing one breath at a time
Through observation we can become aware of our breathing patterns, how they reflect and amplify how we feel. Any changes should be approached lightly and kindly as force or excess effort can just impose another pattern on top of an already dysfunctional pattern. Working with a yoga therapist or experienced yoga teacher is the surest way to a safe, effective practice. Simple breathing techniques can transform everyday breathing into a source of pleasure and connection to our own aliveness.
For most people a good starting point is to learn to breathe in and out with the diaphragm for an equal length, thus regulating the alert state attained during the inhale and the relaxed state of the exhale. When our emotions are overwhelming or our mind chaotic then so is our breath and then of course, our heart rhythm. Regulating the breath is a powerful way to remain steady as we accept how we feel and how we think as well as the countless physical and physiological benefits we gain from restoring this natural flow to one of the most essential rhythms of life.
Breath cannot be separated from life itself. From our first breath to our last it is our constant companion.