As a Functional Stress Management specialist, one of the most powerful tools in my tool belt is the breath. Breathing practices are gaining more and more attention lately due to their effectiveness in aiding patients with COVID-19 and long COVID in recovery, but the reality is that the breath’s relationship to whole body health has been well documented and understood for many years. In fact, the ancient yogic practice of pranayama, a breath-based practice, was created in part to improve health and is thousands of years old!
One of the most common dysfunctional breathing patterns I see is shallow breathing. This is breathing that is usually quick with most of the movement of the breath operated by secondary breathing muscles and is often done with the mouth open or slightly open. Shallow breathing is a common coping mechanism for folks with high-stress lives, folks with allergies, or people who just haven’t ever been taught how to properly breathe.
There are several problems with shallow breathing that always lead me to jump on curbing this unhealthy habit even before I start working on other challenges clients might have. Shallow breathing and mouth breathing can be contributing factors to panic attacks, respiratory diseases, dental issues, muscle aches and pains, and other diseases comorbid with chronic stress (ie. cardiovascular disease, immune system disorders, etc.).
One of the primary realities underlying many of these negative effects of shallow breathing is that the mouth evolved primarily for digesting food while the nose is primarily evolved for breathing and the functions that go along with it (like our sense of smell). When we breathe through our mouths we skip the unique and advanced filtering system that our nose has in the form of tiny hairs that block pollen, bacteria, spores, and viruses from entering our deeper nasal passages and more importantly our lungs. Mouth breathing can also cause the mouth to dry out which leads to increased cavities and dental health challenges. Breathing through the mouth also triggers the sympathetic nervous system as we’ve evolved to mouth breath only when we need to inhale and exhale large amounts of air to power the system when in a stress response to danger (think how most folks resort to mouth breathing after running for a while). The challenge is that nowadays we can be mouth breathing at home on the couch with no threat of danger but our bodies will be sent into high alert mode because our breathing pattern is telling the body to prep for a fight or flee response. This excess of oxygen and quick breath rhythm combined with an overactive sympathetic response is what can lead to panic attacks. Finally, if you ask anyone who works with breath they’ll explain that mouth breathing also recruits the secondary breathing muscles that are key players in shallow breathing and are also mal equipped for assisting in breathing regularly.
The primary sign of a shallow breather is not mouth breathing, although many folks that mouth breath are shallow breathers, but is actually chest breathing. This means that when breathing, the muscles of the chest, neck, and jaw are doing more work to power the breath than the diaphragm which is our primary breathing muscle (the muscle we evolved specifically for this action). When the secondary breathing muscles (the muscles of the chest, jaw, and neck) power our breath this also incites the sympathetic response and can be a perpetuating cycle of stress. People breathe high in their chest when they are stressed, but breathing high in the chest just perpetuates the sympathetic nervous system response. According to an article shared on Headspace, a tech company devoted to sharing meditation with the masses “chronic stress that is associated with shallow breathing results in lower amounts of lymphocyte, a type of white blood cell that helps to defend the body from invading organisms, and lowers the amounts of proteins that signal other immune cells. The body is then susceptible to contracting acute illnesses, aggravating pre-existing medical conditions, and prolonging healing times”. The other challenge with recruiting secondary breathing muscles for shallow breathing rather than our diaphragm is that over time the tension that develops from powering a movement these muscles are not equipped to do can cause pain and disrupt sleep and musculoskeletal health and development.
There is however a way to escape shallow breathing and that is by breathing deeply and slowly using our diaphragm. For most folks, learning how to properly breathe is a big undertaking and it takes a trained professional to guide them along the way. That’s where professionals like me come in. The upside is that once people learn how to breath correctly not only do they lose the negative effects of shallow breathing but they gain greater vagal tone (for more on the vagus nerve and its role in our nervous system read this article), more relaxed muscles, better balance within the nervous system and better health indicators (like blood pressure, heart rate variability and resting heart rate). To learn more about how breathing affects your health check out a podcast all about that very subject here. To book a free initial session with me and begin retraining your breath click here.