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Breathe Easy

Malkie Schulman

You do it all day long — but are you doing it correctly? Study after study has proven the benefits of breathing exercises to boost immunity, mood, and improve a range of health issues. But how?

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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TAKE A DEEP BREATH Even though breathing exercises are supported by research, cost nothing, are free of side effects, and can be done anywhere at any time, people often have a hard time committing to the daily practice of mindful breathing. But it’s worth the investment

W hen was the last time you thought about your breathing? Chances are, it was only when your nose was clogged or you went for a long, hard run.

In everyday life, we pay little attention to our breathing. But our breath can reveal a lot about our inner state. When we’re relaxed, our breathing is usually slow and consistent. If we’re weepy or depressed, we may inhale short breaths and exhale in long sighs. Fear can make us hold our breath. When our mind is overactive, the breath practically disappears — it becomes shallow and moves to the top of the chest.

Undisturbed, our breath serves as an indicator of our physical and emotional health. But when we start to breathe consciously, controlling every inhale and exhale, it can produce dramatic results. Studies have consistently shown that breathing exercises can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and attention deficit disorder. Through controlled breathing, it’s also possible to boost your immune system, elevate your performance levels, and improve your mood.

What makes breath such a powerful remedy? One theory, proposed by Dr. Richard Brown, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath, is that controlled breathing changes the response of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary processes such as heart rate and digestion, as well as the body’s stress response.

Dr. Brown explains that when we take slow, steady breaths, our brain receives the message that everything is well, so it activates the parasympathetic response (a section of the autonomic nervous system that conserves energy as it slows the heart rate), increases intestinal activity, and relaxes muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. When we hold our breath or take quick shallow breaths, however, the sympathetic response — the section of the autonomic nervous system involved with the release of stress hormones — is activated.

Catch Your Breath

Are you breathing correctly? You may not be. There are three basic breathing errors that can impact more than just the nervous system. The first mistake is breathing through the mouth instead of the nose; the second is taking in air using the chest, rather than the stomach; and the third is taking short breaths instead of long ones.

Nose breathing is superior, according to Dr. Leonard Bielory, an allergist-immunologist in Springfield, New Jersey. “Unlike the mouth, the nose acts as a filtration system blocking out air pollutants from the environment, as well as biological


contaminants, such as pollen, bacteria, and viruses,” Dr. Bielory explains. Stomach breathing (versus chest breathing) is also critical because it ensures that enough oxygen is circulating in the blood.

Taking short breaths or not inhaling deeply enough can cause a lack of energy, muscle tension, and decreased relaxation in the body. It also means the entire abdomen, chest, and throat are not moving and elongating as they should, which also creates tightness and tension. Instead of the diaphragm and deep muscles of respiration, the body is using the accessory muscles in the neck, throat, and upper chest, which is inefficient and taxing on those muscles.

The saying, “it comes as naturally as breathing,” is used to describe a skill one can perform almost automatically. But for many of us, breathing properly doesn’t come naturally at all. There are a number of reasons why people get into the habit of breathing incorrectly.

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