“Over breathing. Someone told me this could be my problem. What is it?” It was a very good question from one of our recent clients.
Breathing is something that we all do thousands of times per day. In fact, around 27,000 times per day on average. Breathing is an unconscious process and an essential part of being a living organism. As we breathe in, we replenish our muscles and vital organs by transporting oxygen to cells and as we breathe out, we remove cellular waste in the form of carbon dioxide from the body. The process of breathing is largely automatic, just like our heart beating or our eyes blinking. The fascinating thing is that we have a little more influence over some of these unconscious processes than what we may think.
As a team of psychologists, we see several clients each week with issues such as anxiety, workplace stress and trauma related problems. What’s interesting is that many of our clients with these presentations tend to be over breathing. What we mean by over breathing is that they appear to be “chest breathing” – often taking shallow breaths as they talk about their reason for coming to Headway. Often people do not know that they are over breathing.
Over breathing is a common feature in anxiety, stress and PTSD. One of the problems with over breathing is that it can keep people in a stressed and anxious state. Most people breathe at a rate of between 10-14 breaths per minute but often people experiencing anxiety, stress and trauma breathe at a much higher rate. Interestingly, many clients who present with these issues also find it extremely difficult to slow their down their rate of breathing. For these clients, it feels unusual and difficult to do so. They regularly report feeling tightness in the muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities – called the diaphragm. This is likely due to repetitive over breathing. When rehearsed often enough, over breathing becomes an automatic, habitual process that we are largely unaware of.
One of the most effective strategies to reduce stress and anxiety and to help people feel back in control after being exposed to trauma is to engage in activities of breathing control. The goal is to slow the breathing process down and to increase the length of the exhalation (the out breath) to be slightly longer than the inhalation (the in breath). This slows down the breathing process and switches off the human stress system. We also encourage people to try breathing using their abdomen as opposed to chest breathing. This is called diaphragmatic or belly breathing.
If you struggle with stress, anxiety or have a trauma history, have you considered that you could be over breathing? Have you ever counted how many times you breathe per minute? If you do struggle with these things, it is likely you could be over breathing but probably not aware of it. That’s because it’s probably become a habit. Like learning a bad habit, you can also be taught to re-learn a more helpful habit. It takes a bit of time, some dedicated practice and you need to be patient. But the effects of proper breathing can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. Correct breathing is associated with less anxiety, reduced stress, and better-quality sleep. Sound good?
Learning breathing control is one of several techniques a clinical or counselling psychologist can help you with.