Fitness

One in 10 of us don't breathe properly and stress is a leading cause

Some of us even hold our breath, breathing experts warn.

By Karyn Henger

Breathing is something we do every moment of every day, without even thinking about it. But Kiwi breathing experts are concerned that as many as one in 10 of us don't breathe properly and this is making us unwell.

When you don't breathe properly - as in shallow breathe or breathe too fast - your blood pressure rises and your anxiety levels go up. You can feel light-headed and dizzy, and the longer-term effect is that you can develop hyperventilation syndrome.

With hyperventilation syndrome you can experience symptoms such as chest pain, a feeling of 'air hunger', blurred vision, dizzy spells, shortness of breath, coldness in your peripheries, a racing heart and very real feelings of fear and anxiety.

There are lots of factors that can cause us to begin breathing badly - allergies or having a blocked nose; when we're in pain; respiratory conditions such as asthma and even hormonal fluctuations - when women menstruate they breathe faster, for example. But one of the biggest everyday causes of poor breathing is stress.

Glenn White, director of the Buteyko Breathing Clinic in Auckland, says medical studies show that people today are breathing at almost double the rate of our great grandparents and he puts it down to the way we handle stress.

"We know that people were very stressed during the Second World War and the Great Depression but from medical records we can see that they were not responding to stress in the same way that we respond to stress today.

"We think that people are spending more time in the sympathetic nervous system mode (our fight or flight mode, in which our breathing is shallower and faster).

"Modern life is faster paced, there’s more technology, we’re more sedentary, there’s more overeating, and all of these things are contributing and impacting on people’s breathing patterns.”

Respiratory physiotherapist and partner at Breathing Works, Auckland, Scott Peirce, is especially concerned about teenagers and people who spend a lot of time on screens:

When we sit in front of a screen and begin typing many of us automatically hold our breath, he says. We tend to regard our computers as important, whether the activities we use them for are stressful or not.

“So we treat our computers like a stress event and turn on our sympathetic nervous system, spending a good part of every day not breathing properly," explains Peirce.

Screen users also hunch over, constricting their diaphragm and making it even more difficult to breathe correctly."

What we can do about it

The good news is we are all capable of improving our breathing technique, it just takes a little practice. Try this breathing exercise from yoga instructor and director of Golden Yogi, Erin O’Hara:

Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent so that your feet are flat on the floor. Breathe in through your nose - drawing breath into the belly first and then the chest, imagining your lungs are filling up like balloons. (Your belly should be rising, not your chest.) Then let the breath go. Your belly should draw down to the ground.

You can do this sitting or standing, but when you lie down it's easier to see/feel the outward expansion of your belly. Once you get the hang of breathing from your diaphragm you can start slowing your breathing down.

All of the experts in this story encourage practicing your breathing technique for a few minutes every day.

“We’re not meant to be thinking about it all the time,” Peirce says. “But it’s useful to check in a few times a day and if you find you’re shallow breathing stop, drop your shoulders and focus on nose-belly breathing.”

There are also a number of lifestyle changes you can make:

1. Reset your thinking. The very act of thinking we're busy and telling people we're busy can make us feel stressed and like things are spinning out of control.

2. Change the pace of your day. Set your alarm for 20 minutes earlier to allow yourself time to move more slowly and mindfully when you get up. Sit down to enjoy your breakfast; don't check your emails until after you've eaten. At the end of each day do something to let go of your day - be it yoga, meditation, taking an evening walk or enjoying a chamomile tea.

3. Follow a regular and relaxing bedtime routine - the same as you'd do for the kids. Take a bath or shower, switch off screens at least an hour before bed and read or do something quiet before you turn in.

4. Exercising regularly can help you unwind and work through stress - swimming and running helps you breathe more deeply and rhythmically. Yoga and meditation both help to improve breathing, with some classes focusing on breathing.