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Breathing and Mental Health

Breathing is involved in everything we do and every function of our body and yet it's unbelievable how many of us don't know how to do it properly.

Inhaling is the first thing we do when we're born. Exhaling is the last before we pass.

Breathing is one of our main sources of energy. For the most curious, the origin of the word “breath” has a meaning equivalent to “vital energy” or “spirit of life” in different cultures. For example, the Sanskrit word is “prana”, the Chinese one is “qi” (read “chi”), “pneuma” in Greek, “ruach” in Hebrew, and “spiritus” in Latin.

For the latin derived languages, the word “inspirar” literally means to bring vital energy or life force into the body.

In Yoga, the key word is “prana”, from which “pranayama” derives, a concept and practice consisting in the expansion of vital energy through breathing techniques.

Over the last few decades, western science has studied these techniques extensively to confirm what the ancient wisdom has been trying to pass on over many centuries. A wisdom that now reawakens and offers to help us with a task that we perform all the time, but with so little awareness.

To carry out this vital task, we are equipped with a pair of lungs that extend from the collarbone area to the lower ribs. If we fully engage our lung capacity, we show up as healthy and radiating energy. We're literally more alive.

The problem is, in the current days, we're not using this resource in its full potential. In fact, some argue that we use only half of our lung capacity and, if we pay attention, many of us breathe solely to the upper part of the chest or in a shallow way. As a result, our energy levels drop, and, to compensate, we eat more and rely on stimulants, which further unbalances our system.

Stress is the main culprit, unsurprisingly – although it's increasingly difficult for us to notice that we're under stress. The complexity of urban lifestyles brings a very subtle level of stress, which is constantly present. Without realizing it, we're breathing shallowly and at a very fast pace.

Speaking of pace, we breathe on average 10 to 20 times in a minute, a little more if we are more active, like when we exercise, and these are the numbers we consider normal. However, science has recently shown that the nervous system is more balanced when we breathe around 5 to 6 times a minute.

This proves that what we have assumed as “normal” is a breathing pattern that is quite accelerated. In the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Breathing and the Nervous System

It's okay to blame stress, but only because we experience it far too much. Stress, like anxiety, is a healthy nervous system response that allows us to adapt to challenging or dangerous situations. It's normal that, in the face of a threat, the heart accelerates, the breathing rate and temperature increase, and the muscles tense up.

This is the half of our autonomic nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, that moves all our internal resources, manages priorities, and prepares us for action – pumped with adrenaline and with our muscles warm and activated, we are much more prepared for action. That's why this response was named “fight-or-flight”. The management of these priorities also implies a decreased focus on functions that are “secondary” to survival, as the sympathetic nervous system inhibits digestion, sexuality, cell regeneration and, in the long term, immunity.

The word “long term” is key. We've been training ourselves really well to stay in this mode for long periods of time. It's easy to see why: we want to be always prepared, to think and act fast, to respond to the endless demands that constantly arise.

Nevertheless, the natural process would be to return to a state of ease and rest after responding to a challenging or threatening situation. Here, it's the parasympathetic nervous system that comes into play, the other half the autonomous nervous system that's responsible for relaxation, digestion and regeneration – and that's why its response has recently been named “rest-and-digest”. In order for this to take place, it is necessary to feel that the challenge is over, to let the body know that it can finally rest – this is the problem.

The parasympathetic nervous system senses what is going on in the body through a special nerve called the vagus nerve. Extending from the base of the brain to the abdominal area, this nerve gathers information through its connection to the gut, lungs and heart, sending it directly to the brain. As long as the these organs indicate any sign of stress, the vagus nerve won't send the signal to relax.

We carry on ready to fight or flight, not to rest and digest, remaining tense, with sluggish or inefficient digestions, and low immunity. Hours, days or weeks can go by and, on autopilot, the response to stop doesn't happen. It is therefore necessary to become aware of and take control over this function.

“Tricking” the Mind

When we are happy, we naturally smile. We smile to express the happiness we feel inside. But even if we're sad, faking a smile might help us feeling a little better. This is actually the brain being “tricked” by a neuronal process, because the neurons that process emotions are associated with the neurons that control facial muscles. As neuropsychologist Donal Webb said, “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

Our brains can't always determine the order of emotional events or distinguish between imagination and reality. When a neural network is activated, our inner chemistry changes – forging a smile will increase the production of serotonin, the happiness hormone, while ruminating about a problem will raise the levels of cortisol.

It's no different with breathing. When we are calm, safe and happy, we breathe slowly and deeply, filling most of our lungs and making time for absorbing oxygen. If we're under stress or in danger, we tend to breathe shortly, shallowly and irregularly in order to get quick oxygen.

Thus, we could assume that we breathe the way we feel, and this is true, although the opposite also happens.

If we breathe fully, our emotions will tend to cool down. We begin to feel aligned with the way we're breathing. Breathing is the only vital function that can be consciously controlled – if we forget about it, our body takes over, but we can intentionally do it as well.

Breathing like that may feel unnatural… which is why we need practice and discipline. Over time, calmer states of consciousness become more reachable. The vagus nerve is activated through this slow, deep breathing, performed voluntarily.

When activated, it interacts with the parasympathetic nervous system, causing the entire body to relax, and this is how we trick our mind into slowing down – even if the challenge is still present.

Far Beyond Stress

If stress influences the way we breathe, breathing in a shorter and shallower way also leads to the feeling of more stress. It's a vicious circle. This process goes far beyond stress.

Therefore, it's worth going into greater detail on the consequences of not breathing properly:

  • There is no effective oxygenation of the brain – which contributes to concentration difficulties, inability to manage emotions, irritability and memory problems

  • Immune system disturbances – a brief spike in stress makes the immune system temporarily more effective, optimizing the production of anti-inflammatory hormones; when chronic, stress leads to an unsustainable energy consumption and the body becomes resistant to the effect of these hormones (similarly to the way it becomes resistant to insulin), compromising immunity

  • Depression and chronic fatigue – in the long term, all this energy waste and inefficient oxygenation can deplete our energy and affect our mood

  • Anxiety, insomnia and higher blood pressure – associated with a faster heartbeat and all the hormonal changes that goes along this constant state of alertness

  • Shortening of the diaphragm and atrophy of the remaining respiratory muscles – by not making full use of our thoracic space, we do not stimulate this muscles, contributing to a progressive loss of mobility and tone

  • Back pain and inadequate posture – exactly because there is an atrophy of the thoracic musculature, which connects to the spine, the space between each vertebrae decreases, altering the posture and increasing tension in the chest, where the antagonists of the dorsal musculature are found

  • Digestive problems – a shortened diaphragm contributes to the compression of digestive organs, contributing to their general malfunction.

Back to a Natural Rhythm

This post cannot end without some tips, after all, the reader sticked around this far and had a very robust theoretical class. Now, you deserve to learn an exercise so that you can, at your own pace, begin to relax and return to a state of balance.

It can be done sitting or lying down, with eyes open or closed – whichever is most comfortable for you. The idea is to bring awareness to what is happening inside your body. You can start by checking how your breath is, before even trying to change it, noting aspects such as rhythm, depth, tension, sensation.

With genuine curiosity and care, get to know the way you breathe just as it is right now. After a few moments, try to slow down the pace a little while gradually increasing the depth – allowing the entire abdominal area to be involved, allowing each breath to be a true gust of fresh air, full of vital energy.

If it helps, you can count the number of times you breathe in one minute and, in the following minutes, try to progressively reduce the pace. It's not advisable to make sudden changes in rhythm, as the nervous system can interpret a rapid change as a threat, and jump into alert mode. Gradually surrender to the breath and feel your body relax.

The mind will wander, so the breath will be the anchor you can return to whenever you become aware of this wandering.

Enjoy this state of relaxation and all the energy you can absorb right now. Feel your vitality, connect with a state of calm and safety and, above all, know that this way of being can be a choice of yours.

If you're interested in improving the quality of your breath or learning how to use it for therapeutic purposes, please get in touch.

Check breathwork related posts on Instagram and learn a bit more:


  • Books

    • Brown, R. P. & Gerbarg, P. L. (2017). Healing Power Of The Breath. Shambhala

    • Saraswati, S. (2002). Asana pranayama mudra bandha (3th revised ed.). Munger: Yoga Publications Trust.

  • Scientific Articles

    • Bordoni, B. & Morabito, B. (2018). Symptomatology Correlations Between the Diaphragm and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Cureus, 10(7), 1–9.

    • Nivethitha, L., Mooventhan, A., Manjunath, N. K., Bathala, L., & Sharma, V. K. (2017). Cerebrovascular hemodynamics during pranayama techniques. Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice, 8, 60–63.

    • Nivethitha, L., Mooventhan, A., Manjunath, N. K., Bathala, L., & Sharma, V. K. (2018). Cerebrovascular Hemodynamics During the Practice of Bhramari Pranayama, Kapalbhati and Bahir-Kumbhaka: An Exploratory Study. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 43, 87–92.

    • Telles, S., Singh, N., & Balkrishna, A. (2011). Heart rate variability changes during high frequency yoga breathing and breath awareness. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 5, 1–6.


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