If we jog our minds back to the previous post, human survival itself is based on being able to maintain a relatively stable internal homeostatic environment. Successful homeostasis is crucial to all living things and deep breathing is a tool we can use to help achieve this.
Unfortunately, we now live in a world where being busy is becoming the norm and our lives are being exposed to more stressors than ever before, which constantly challenges our homeostatic balance.
Naturally our homeostatic systems can respond and deal with being exposed to stressors in the short term. However, systems can begin to fail with long term exposure to stressors, which can have detrimental effects on our health and wellbeing. This is where deep breathing comes into play as a hugely under-utilized and highly valuable tool to help maintain homeostasis.
On average an adult breathes approximately 20,000 times per day – but how much attention do we really pay to our breathing?
Deep breathing – or diaphragmatic breathing – is a powerful mind body practice that has been used in yoga and ancient religious practices for hundreds of years and there is good reason it has stood the test of time. There are countless positive benefits of deep breathing, but before we explore this further, let’s firstly dive into understanding how our bodies naturally respond to stress.
Acute short term stress is a necessary and normal part of daily life. For example, acute stress can be used positively to help motivate you to perform well at a job interview: you might experience an increased heart rate, your pulse quickens, and you breathe faster as your brain uses more fresh oxygen for increased activity and clarity. But when these feelings become chronic or long term, perhaps from lingering financial pressure or a high pressure job, our homeostatic balance is compromised and you may begin to experience ongoing sickness and illness, digestive issues, headaches, sleep disturbances and chronic or niggly aches and pains that don’t seem to go away. What’s happening here in both cases of acute or chronic stress, is our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) has been activated. This is our body’s flight or fight response, or as I like to call it ‘the gas’, ready to rev up our body and release key stress hormones to create physiological changes to overcome the perceived danger or stress.
Evolutionarily, this nervous system was only activated when our survival was threatened such as when under attack from a ferocious lion or in modern day perhaps when faced with an ongoing car or a looming deadline. Yet, as our lives are becoming more stressful than ever many people are experiencing an overactive and chronic SNS activation on a day to day basis in response life events that are non-life threatening!!
Deep breathing is a fantastic tool to deactivate our SNS and to activate our calming parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) or ‘the break’. The PNS is designed to relax the body and slow us down in the absence of danger. The PNS is where we experience lowered blood pressure, lowered heart rate, a sense of calm and ease, and where vital unconscious bodily processes of digestion, urination, defecation and sexual arousal occur. In short many people are too heavy footed on ‘the gas’ and we need to start taking steps towards putting our foot on ‘the break’ in order to preserve homeostasis – and deep breathing is a great way to achieve this.
‘But I’ve been breathing for years,’ you say? ‘How can deep breathing possibly help me?!’
Deep breathing requires approximately 6 deep breathes per minute rather than the average adults 14 per minute. Deep breathing involves a few things, firstly utilizing your diaphragm, a dome shaped muscle that separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity, as well as expanding our lower ribs and deepening our inhalation and exhalation.
Through this, deep breathing bio-hacks your physiology by activating the vagus nerve, which is a cranial nerve that directly taps into your central nervous systems putting a hold on your SNS and activating the PNS. How cool is that?!
Studies have demonstrated that even just one deep inhalation and exhalation can reduce blood pressure and heart rate and increase oxygenation. Psychological studies have revealed deep breathing as an effective non-pharmacological intervention to manage anxiety, depression, acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies among healthy subjects reveal that deep breathing can reduce pain by increasing pain thresholds, increases mood, improves sleep quality, enhances the digestive system, reduces muscle tension, calms the nervous system, increases energy and improves immune function. In specific osteoarthritic populations deep breathing has been shown to help knee arthritic patients better cope with their pain and improve functional outcomes. As you can see there are so many reasons why you can benefit from deep breathing.
So how can you begin incorporating deep breathing into everyday life?
There are different methods of deep breathing and ultimately it comes down to what suits you best. Your physiotherapist can help guide you through the best method for you to meet your specific needs. However, a good starting point is firstly lying on your back, or sitting in a chair supported, shoulders are relaxed and down, your chin slightly tucked in, gently close your eyes, visualise your diaphragm sitting at the bottom of your rib cage, inhale through your nose filling up not only your belly but also focussing on expanding your rib cage through the side of your body and creating a gentle pressure in the back of your rib cage, inhale for a count of 4 seconds, hold for a moment at the top of your inhale and then exhale for 6 seconds with a small pause at the end of your exhale. Start small with 10 breathes and see how you feel following this. You might then want to try this for 5 minutes a day and build up from there.
It’s a good idea to practice this technique daily even when you don’t feel stressed and of course particularly whenever you begin to feel direct signs that your foot is on the gas again.
Deep breathing is a powerhouse tool that we can all start using to overcome the overused SNS response to bring about a healthy homeostatic state and overall improved wellbeing. So why not set yourself a challenge of incorporating this into your daily routine for 1 week and see the effects for yourself.
Livvy Wilson is a SportsLab Physiotherapist who focuses on whole-body care. She is an absolute power house in her work and her sport.