IN BALANCE — Breathing for better health

December 1, 2016

By Aleisha Anderson

Aleisha Anderson Head ShotThe effects of chronic stress are well documented. One of the most common side effects of this fight or flight state is shallow breathing.

Fight or flight is a term that describes a chain of events in the body that is utilized in stressful situations. The response to real or perceived stress or danger creates an overall effect that makes the body speed up, tense up, and become generally more alert. The body prepares to take quick action against what is perceived as an immediate threat.

When the fight or flight system activates, each breath becomes shorter and more rapid. The body responds with frequent sighing, jaw clenching, holding of breath, frequent yawning, and lifted shoulders with neck tension.

Stress hormones are released to support any required quick, critical response. If the body is regularly exposed to feelings of urgency or has a stored history of trauma, a chronic state of fight or flight may persist — even small stressors may be perceived as an immediate threat. Short, rapid breaths may become a normal pattern if we are not mindful of the effects of chronic stress.

Shallow breathing is not a sign that the body needs more oxygen. Ironically, the body is likely over-breathing in a chronic fight or flight pattern. To reverse this pattern, the body must slow down the breath cycle and lengthen exhalation, which will slow down the heart rate. It sends a message to the brain that everything is more calm and peaceful.

Exhalation is the most important aspect of breathing when trying to release stress, trauma, pain, and tension from the body.

A simple breathing practice that helps retrain a shallow breathing pattern is called the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system that emphasizes a longer exhalation than inhalation.

This breathing practice is simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although mindful breathing can be done in any position, sit with the back straight while learning the exercise. Try to breathe into the belly and relax the shoulders. Place the tip of the tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind the upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire practice. It is important to exhale through the mouth, so pursing the lips slightly may help air pass around the tongue.

To start, exhale completely through the mouth, making a whoosh sound. Next, close the mouth and inhale quietly through the nose to a mental count of four. Hold the breath for a count of seven, keeping the shoulders relaxed. Exhale completely through the mouth with a whooshing sound to the count of eight. This is one breath cycle, now inhale and repeat this three more times for a total of four cycles.

If you have trouble holding the breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice the breath will slow down and the body will get accustomed to inhaling and exhaling more deeply. Any light-headedness you may experience will pass. Practice breathing this way at least twice per day with a total of four breaths per session.

Bay View resident Aleisha Anderson, L.Ac., is the clinic director and acupuncturist at Mke Mindbody Wellness, an integrative wellness center with holistic therapies focused on mental health. More info: mkewellness.com. Disclaimer: The information provided in this column is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice or care. 

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