My last post focused on symptoms of overload signalling a need to create a breathing recovery space. When we are in a state of sustained stress, our higher thinking centres switch off. We need to switch off this threat response, find the breathing space – and ask what we really need now. This article focuses on both the medical science and pro-active techniques for helping you to re-set and re-centre.

For most of the time we are not conscious of how we breathe at all. It is only when we become ‘breathless with excitement’ or stop before an amazingly beautiful view and ‘hold our breath’ that we become consciously aware of our breath breathing us.

Breathing Retraining and Mindfulness

Getting that weight off your mind….

A central platform of mindfulness is paying attention to the breath as it moves in and out, moment to moment. This ability then allows you to regain present moment awareness and re-connect with yourself without thinking.

Creating a breathing space when we are feeling stressed is a central plank of mindfulness-based behavioural change therapies. The persistence of unchallenged negative thought creates a mind-body groove in the brain’s neural pathways. The breathing space ‘lifts the energy and impact of the negative emotion from the neural pathways at the contact point’, thereby allowing new circuitry to develop.

The breathing can get stuck in an over breathing habit which holds the body-mind in a state of high internal stress (held in Fight, Flight or Fold mode). It is then difficult to take meaningful action. Without consciously engaging the diaphragm and knowing how to slow the out breath, this upper chest breathing pattern with hyper arousal continues to hold people in an anxious state. It disconnects us from thinking clearly. For techniques to deal with this problem, see the You-tube video: Dr David Beales – mindful breathing meditation.

Recent research at King’s College London reported in Science review has shown how antidepressant drugs activate a key protein involved in the brain’s response to stress called the glucocorticoid receptor. A similar mechanism may be the reason that meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy are effective in depression. The approaches taught allow new pathways within the brain to re-activate. They are made permanent by new behaviours associated with positive emotional states.

What is overbreathing?

How we breathe can profoundly affect the chemistry of the body by altering its PH value or acidity levels as well as reducing the release of available oxygen to cells.  As we overbreathe and our carbon dioxide levels drop, we don’t release oxygen to all tissues of the body. This is known as the Bohr Effect. This effect forms a reasonable hypothesis to explain dominant symptoms of chronic over breathing such as “brain fog”. In my experience, it can account for up to 50% of all GP consultations.

A magnetic resonance brain scan demonstrating oxygen release.

Overbreathing, stress and “Fight, Flee or Freeze”

When under stress the breathing pattern changes. Typically, an anxious person takes small, shallow breaths, raising their shoulders and using upper chest muscles rather than their diaphragm to move air in and out of their lungs. This style of breathing moves too much carbon dioxide out of the air passages and blood than is being made by the normal metabolism of the body and upsets the balance of gases. If the stressful situation is not resolved and chronic over breathing results many symptoms can occur in multiple body systems such as:

  • Chest tightness, chest pains and tension
  • Dizziness, brain fog and losing contact with normal surroundings
  • Breathing symptoms such as rapid or deep breathing
  • Difficulties taking a deep breath, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • Feelings of panic and anxiety
  • Colds hands and feet and/or tingling of the fingers
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscular stiffness and/or a perception of tightness around the mouth
  • A bloated abdomen

As carbon dioxide levels fall, small blood vessels in the skin with smooth muscle in their walls called arterioles constrict, causing blood to be diverted into the larger blood vessels deep within muscles as resistance to the hearts cardiac output is raised. This has been designed to aid the ‘get away’ or the ‘withdrawal’ (flight/fight/freeze) response diverting blood to muscles and also to our emotional brain deep within the limbic system. Hypertension can result and a device called a Resperate that slows the breathing rate and prolongs the out breath is evidence based and recommended by doctors.

Client Report: Jo attended a workshop and described intermittent episodes of coughing and wheezing that were interfering with her preparation for an important professional exam. She remembered that each time during her life that she had been taking an exam she developed symptoms of cough and wheeze. As she made the connection between how she breathed under stress and her symptoms, she recognized that mindful watching for the first signals of over breathing will help her manage her asthma better. Careful monitoring of her asthma and the use of a combination of inhaler medication and breath awareness is now more effective for her. Research has led to the recommendation for breathing re-training by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) for people with asthma.

Do you have any comments or thoughts on the techniques discussed above? If so, I would love to hear them!

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