We talked about some breathing basics the other day and just how important proper breathing is for our body’s building blocks, our cells. Cells need oxygen to function properly and they don’t get it if you don’t breathe properly. So how does one learn to breathe properly?
Kirsten sat down and asked that question to Valerie Carlson, Certified Nurse Practitioner in Rejuv Medical’s Functional Medicine department.
Kirsten: Doesn’t our body just breathe on its own? What does it mean to “breathe properly”?
Valerie: Well, yes, our bodies do enough to keep us alive. The difference is in unconscious versus conscious breathing.
Kirsten: What’s the difference?
Valerie: Unconscious breathing just happens naturally. Sometimes that natural breath can constrict on us like when we are scared. Chest, or shallow thoracic breathing, leads to a rapid heartbeat and low oxygen levels. But if you can master the art of conscious breathing, you can control your body. I’ve felt it and I’ve seen it. When people are under stress or in pain, they tend to take short, shallow breaths and they don’t even realize it. Stress and even anxiety disorders go hand in hand with shallow breathing. It kicks in our fight or flight response, our body feels unsafe, starts to prepare for danger and we begin to hyperventilate, panic and be anxious. To turn off those feelings, we can take deep breaths that flood our body with oxygen, calm our heartbeat and release tension. That is conscious breathing and for being as simple as it is, it’s more powerful than you may think.
Kirsten: You said you’ve seen the benefits of conscious breathing in action. When?
Valerie: Prior to working at Rejuv, I was a cardiac care nurse. When I was working in ICU, I had a male heart patient in his forties who had suffered multiple heart attacks and had a heart full of stents. He would come in almost monthly with pain in his chest and fear in his head. We would monitor him closely, and as his pain kicked in, so did his stress, which caused his pain to increase even further. Although he was on multiple IV meds to lower his heart rate, none of them were working. I decided to try some guided breathing to see if that would help. After the first five minutes, there was no change. But after fifteen minutes of calm, rhythmic, deep breathing, the top number on his blood pressure had gone from 200 to 100 and his resting heart rate went from 120 to 50. He had zero chest pain and remained free of pain for 24 hours. Not only were those deep breathing exercises a relief for him that night, but now he had a tool he could use anytime, anywhere.
Kirsten: What a great story! How does our body do that?
Valerie: When we are stressed, especially when we are in pain, or even if we have a big presentation coming up at work, our stress hormones go up, directly increasing our heart rate and blood pressure which in turn makes us feel even more stressed! That’s our body’s sympathetic system in action. We also have a para-synthetic system, which is the calming system. Breathing techniques work directly on this calming system.
Kirsten: So how can we teach our para-synthetic system to kick into hear?
Valerie: There’s a great breathing exercise that I use with my patients all the time that can help. It’s called squared breathing. Sit up straight in a chair or, if you want to fall sound asleep, go ahead and lie down. Take a nice deep breathe in through your nose all the way down to your belly letting your belly fill and expand fully while counting to four. Gently hold while counting to four, then breathe out through your mouth counting to four, then gently hold while counting to four. Repeat that ten or twelve times. As you breathe, think about taking in fresh, clean, pure air and letting it flow all the way through your body down to every last cell. As you exhale, think about the gunk, whatever your gunk is that you need released, flowing out and away.
Kirsten: How often should you do that?
Valerie: I tell my patients to do this every day and make it a habit. You can do it any time, any place and it’s very effective. You should be able to feel your heart rate go down and your blood pressure will do the same. It’s the mind-body connection. If you are at work and stress hits, do the squared breathing right on the spot. If you suffer from chronic stress, do this four or five times per day for twelve breaths. Eventually, even if you start to think about your breathing technique, it will begin the calming process. If you are a troubled sleeper, this is a great tool as well.