Breaths that originate from the diaphragm can help calm nerves, stabilize blood pressure and more.
Take a deep breath. Did your shoulders and/or neck move? Do you feel taller when you breathe? If so, you’re doing what experts call vertical breathing, and it could be contributing to a number of unhealthy conditions.
Those same experts compare shallow, vertical breaths to the body’s fight or flight response to stress. Dr. Belisa Vranich, a New York City- based clinical psychologist and author of Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve your Mental and Physical Health, says breathing vertically puts your body in a constant fight or flight mode and negatively impacts your whole health.
“When you are breathing with upper-body breath, the heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up, cortisol (stress hormone) increases and your immune system goes down,” all because of the way you breathe, Vranich says.
Vranich says her work and belief in deep breathing was inspired by the findings of Dr. Arthur Guyton, a renown physiologist and medical author at the University of Mississippi, who claimed all chronic pain and suffering come from a lack of oxygen at a cellular level. “Underneath emotional pain, anxiety and even sickness, there is always a lack of oxygen,” she says.
Vertical breathing’s impact
Vranich estimates that nine out of 10 people are vertical breathers. This seemingly innocent action — taking short, shallow breaths, all day, every day — tells your nervous system you
are under duress or stress. The body’s stress response suppresses the immune system, increasing your chances to catch a cold or other illness. Combine that with the increase in blood pressure and the release of cortisol, and your body is straining with every breath you take.
“Your diaphragm is your main breathing muscle. The only reason it’s in your body is to help you breathe,” Vranich says. “Pulling your thoracic cavity (ribs, heart, lungs) up and down with your shoulder and neck muscles thousands of times a day, millions of times a year, it’s no wonder we have stiffness in our neck and shoulders. We’re using muscles that were never meant to be breathing muscles.”
She adds that when we respond to stressful situations, the body’s reflex action is to stiffen or brace itself.
“The response to stress is usually bracing your body. Whether you’re writing an important email, sometimes being in deep focus, all the while you are unaware that your neck and shoulders are tensing up. That stress and tension is directing the body to breathe vertically,” Vranich says.
Building a better breath
Regularly breathing from the diaphragm may seem foreign at first, but Vranich says it’s the way our bodies are designed to breathe.
“You used to breathe this way, probably up until you were 8 or 9 years old,” Vranich says. “Somewhere in your brain, in your soul, your body remembers breathing that way. It shouldn’t feel unnatural. As you practice, you’ll have moments where this will feel really natural.”
For vertical breathers, it takes a conscious effort to start breathing from the diaphragm. Vranich uses a number of exercises to help people rediscover their deep breath.
Rock and roll
- Sit up straight in a chair, make sure your back is not touching the back of the seat
- Inhale as you lean forward, placing your belly on your lap
- Exhale as you roll back upright
- Do this several times throughout the day and remember to keep your head facing forward, not looking up.
“This helps create horizontal breathing. It may feel peculiar, but it should also feel strangely good,” Vranich says. “Every time you take a breath with that lower part of your body, it equals five vertical breaths. You’re also telling your neurological system to calm down. The whole process is faster than you think it would be and feels really natural, as well.”
When deep breathing becomes second nature, Vranich says the body will be positively impacted in several other ways. The reduction in breathing- induced stress will allow you to fall asleep faster and easier. Sleep will also become more restful. Digestion can also improve. The flexing of the diaphragm muscle will massage your digestive organs, which may help relieve conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux.
“It could improve those conditions immediately. I don’t mean within months; I mean within days,” Vranich says.
Strengthening the diaphragm also helps reduce back pain. The muscle stretches around the body so as it gets stronger, it provides more support. Vertical breathing is also denying your brain the balanced oxygen it needs to perform at an optimal level.
“It goes back to vertical breathing and the illusion of stress it creates between the nerve receptors and the brain,” Vranich says. “It’s estimated that 30 percent of Americans have some type of anxiety disorder. Add a stressed- out breath to it and the implications are huge as far as mental health and other repercussions shallow breathing has on your whole body.”
Chad Eiler is the senior copywriter for Healthy Living Made Simple