I’ve always been a straight-A student, which is why it was totally deflating when I got aD(aD!)onthemostbasic of assignments: breathing. After monitoring my inhalations and exhalations, Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and author of Breathe, gave me my near- failing grade on this very basic, bodily function, with just one small consolation: nine out of 10 people are just as bad at it as I am. It turns out that most adults are shoulder-breathers; when we inhale, our shoulders rise, engaging the upper-back muscles. This type of vertical breathing only makes space for air in the narrowest part of the lungs, explains Belisa. It’s the exact opposite of how the body was designed to breathe...and such shallow breaths actually send danger signals to the nervous system, spiking stress hormones.
The result: “Your heart rate and blood pressure go up, and your immune system goes down,” says Belisa. Yep, even if you’re in the middle of a nice massage, or just sitting on the couch, watching the hilarious Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. You may be laughing, but your body thinks you’re stressed out. The trouble starts
in primary school. Most young kids are horizontal- breathers, says Belisa. When they inhale, it looks like there’s a balloon in their bellies—air enters and expands the biggest part of their lungs. But once in the classroom, they pick up the bad posture that comes with sitting all day. And slumping crushes your diaphragm muscle and blocks the lower lungs from expanding.
Cultural cues make things worse. We’ve been conditioned to accept that a shoulder raise can be the best way to take in air (doctors put a stethoscope on our chests and say ‘deep breath’). And then there’s the pressure to have a flat stomach. Stick out my middle each time I breathe? Never!
Deeper belly-breathing will make you feel calmer and happier. “When you breathe horizontally, your vagus nerve—it starts at the back of your head and runs all the way through your body—tells your brain to go into rest-and- digest mode,” says Belisa. Meaning, you’ll feel less tense, sleep way better, have less stomach drama, and also fortify your immune system.”
3 WAYS TO CHILL, STAT
Next time you’re in the midst of mental turmoil, practice one of these breathing exercises from Dr Andrew Weil, Founder and Program Director of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in the US.
WHEN YOU’RE ANGRY...
TRY BREATHE COUNTING
Close your eyes and take a few deep, natural breaths, counting from one as you exhale each time, up to
five. Continue for up to 10 minutes.
WHEN YOU’RE TOSSING AND TURNING...
TRY THE 4-7-8 BREATH
Hold the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose as you count to four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound again for a count of eight. Repeat the cycle three more times.
WHEN YOU’RE NERVOUS...
TRY THE 4-8 BREATH
Skip the seven-count hold here. With mouth closed and the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, inhale slowly through your nose to a count of four. Exhale slowly and completely through the mouth with a whoosh sound, to a count of eight. Repeat three times.
By Lauren Sams