Everywhere I look, I find recommendations – often coached as either appeals or admonitions – with a theme of “breathe deeper and more often” to “become healthy and happy”. Whether that’s the increasing use of deep breathing ‘tools’ for emotional management in schools like Take 5 Breathing, New Zealand’s Pause Breathe Smile, or the yoga “gold standard” of full yogic breaths, Wim Hof or Andrew Weil – deep breathing seems the thing to do to resolve any ailment on the planet.
Since no one is asking, here is the big questions: Does deep and fast breathing deliver? Will it make you healthier? Or is there something else at play?
The Good Side of Deep Breathing
- Many people do not use their diaphragm much when they breathe with the chest picking up the slack and helping the breathing to happen (upper chest breathing). As this generally happens unconsciously any measure of awareness, however small, is a good thing as we can only change something if we know about it.
- Deep breathing is often meant to refer to diaphragmatic breathing. Allowing people to switch from upper chest to diaphragmatic breathing even for short periods is definitely a good thing. However, in all likelihood people will switch back to habitual upper chest breathing once the breath awareness goes.
- Slow breathing activates the relaxation response. This is the opposite of the physiological stress response which most of us are only all too familiar! Even a short activation of the relaxation response is a good thing and if that happens regularly then people will derive benefit.
- Faster breathing will activate the physiological stress response and stimulate cortisol release making us more alert, active and freeing energy resources. Only when breathing becomes so rapid that Co2 loss is substantial will dizziness and other symptoms start to feel uncomfortable.
The Really Not-So-Good Side of Deep Breathing
- When people advocate for deep breathing but are oblivious to whether the increased movement is in the diaphragm, chest or abdomen, then an existing dysfunctional habit may be reinforced by a belief that what is happening is a good thing.
- When children with perfectly good breathing patterns are taught that another way is better we may me doing them severe harm if they started adopting a that habit. Would you know?
- When the relaxation response is not activated then in all likelihood the stress response will be! This is because for most people the nervous system is primed for sympathetic activation. Mostly this happens whenever the inhale is favoured over the exhale, and indeed, the focus is often on large inhales rather than large exhales.
- Activation of the autonomic nervous system generally feels good. It’s something we are familiar with and it can give an energy boost. This may give us the message that we are doing it right and that is a worthwhile thing to do. Once available energy is depleted (a normal state for a lot of people) then a stress response will borrow energy needed elsewhere and dip us into an energy deficit later. If you often feel tired throughout the day, then this is what’s going on.
- Deep breathing often causes CO2 loss and a change in pH. This can be short-term or not depending on the resilience of the individual. A number of adverse effects of this have been listed.
- People with anxiety or systemic health conditions are often better off with targeted breathing exercises rather than the one size fits all approach. While websites usually have a disclaimer, not many people will respect the power of the breath. In fact, most people are better off learning about good breathing from a trained expert rather than their school or yoga teacher. This is particularly true if they know a dysfunctional breathing habit is present.
So, does deep and fast breathing deliver? Yes, in some cases. It is more likely to have positive outcome if you have a knowledgeable teacher that can take your personal situation into account, or you are generally very healthy and resilient to begin with. The more problematic breathing is for you, the less likely you will benefit from a standard breathing practice and the more likely it will cause harm.
So, is there something else at play? Yes, due to the myriad of interactions between respiratory, cardiac and nervous systems, changing one always changes the others. So don’t risk an asthma or anxiety attack or a even dizzy spell to please even the most well-meaning teacher.
What to Teach Children – A Request
I’ve seen school children take big noisy in-breaths to please a smiling teacher during their calm breathing practice and I just can’t help wondering what we are really teaching them? Healthy, normal breathing is neither noisy nor requires large inhales, it is merely allowing the body the right kind of breath in each situation that will satisfy its needs. Why do we think we have to change their way of breathing to calm them down – we don’t!
Should you be a teacher involved in any of these practices, channel your teachings to a safer, yet still effective, way of engaging with the breath. Teach breath awareness rather than a specific breathing practice to your children. Breath awareness by itself is extremely powerful and if done right will calm any child. To do this, ask you children to become aware of their breathing without changing it (ask me for a Breathing Awareness Guide for ideas on prompts).