I’ve recently started paying more attention to when I hold my breath throughout my day. Almost without exception, I’ve found that I hold my breath when I’m experiencing stress. Not only that, but the act of holding my breath makes me more stressed out! It becomes a vicious cycle. As soon as I resume mindful breathing, a lot of my stress dissipates.
Both shallow breathing and holding your breath can increase the carbon dioxide levels in your body, which may lead to lightheadedness or dizziness. When we breathe, our cells get the oxygen they need to convert the nutrients we eat into energy for the body. Breathing delivers that oxygen to the cells, and also gets rid of waste produced from this conversion process, namely carbon dioxide. So whenever we’re not inhaling or exhaling enough, our bodies either don’t have the oxygen they need, or they can’t get rid of all the waste.
Holding your breath or breathing shallowly can also be a strong indicator of anxiety, which has many potential long-term effects on the body, including blood pressure problems, heart problems, and trouble sleeping.
The good news is that learning to breathe more efficiently and effortlessly can help ease your anxiety. Also, it is relatively easy to do and can be practiced anywhere, even sitting at your desk.
Somatic therapist Carla Melucci Ardito explains, “Our posture and our breathing affect each other, and both affect our central nervous system. Staying mindful of how we situate our bones on our chairs can help us to breathe more freely and reduce stress in our day.” She offers several simple tips for how to do this.
The first step is to find a neutral pelvic position where your pelvis is neither arched forward nor rounded and slumped backward. Next, completely relax your gluteus muscles (or butt muscles). Ardito says, “This is important, because many people are unaware of how the subtle gripping of these muscles tightens and shortens the breath. If you don’t believe me, try purposely gripping your buttocks while attempting a deep breath.” (I tried it, and she’s right!) From there, Ardito says that you will be able to breathe more efficiently. Your hip and back muscles should feel relaxed and when you breath your stomach and lower back should both expand outward easily and without you having to force them to do so.
Brian W. Carlin, MD, a pulmonologist in Pittsburgh, offers an alternative exercise. Here are the steps that he outlines:
1. Place one hand on your upper chest, and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
2. Sit comfortably, with your knees bent and your shoulders, head and neck relaxed.
3. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
4. Tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your upper chest must remain as still as possible.
It is helpful to check in with your posture and your breathing throughout the day. The goal is to carry your body in a supported, relaxed way so that you can easily and efficiently breath deeply.