The Importance of Breathwork.
Updated: Nov 24, 2019
We do not ever have to consciously think about breathing, unless of course we want to. Our breath, along with other bodily functions, is controlled by our autonomic nervous system. This allows our bodies to breathe automatically, without our conscious awareness.
As babies we naturally engage in diaphragmatic breathing, using the large muscle below our rib cage (the diaphragm) to draw air into the lungs. Over time, some of us have forgotten how to breathe diaphragmatically and instead use our neck and upper chest muscles to engage in thoracic (chest) breathing.
When we take a breath using our diaphragm, the muscle contracts and forces us to expand our abdominal area so that our belly button is pushed outwards and then as we exhale, our belly button is pulled back towards the spine and our diaphragm relaxes to expel the stale air from our lungs. There is no movement within the chest area. This type of breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system - the rest and digest response. We feel safe, we feel relaxed, we can increase our blood flow to our digestive system and begin to digest food and also sleep. In contrast, when we take a breath using our neck and upper chest muscles, our rib cage and sternum expand and as we exhale, our rib cage and sternum contract. This type of breathing simulates a panic response and activates our sympathetic nervous system - the fight, flight, freeze response. We feel fear, we feel danger, our blood flow is directed to our muscles to provide the energy bursts that we may need in order to move quickly to protect ourselves. We are on high alert. External stimulants such as traffic noise, flashing lights, sirens, running late and other life anxieties can affect our breathing. Our brains register these stimulants as potential dangers and our fight, flight or freeze response is then triggered; our breathing quickens and our breath moves further up into the top part of the lung and this results in a cyclical state of stress.
We can break this state of stress, firstly by consciously breathing (taking our awareness to where our breath is going and registering how this makes us feel) and, secondly by diaphragmatically breathing.
We can begin to understand our bodies and also our physiological responses to emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, sadness, joy, anticipation and trust. By engaging in conscious breathing, we can begin to recognise when we may be exacerbating the symptoms of stress and/or anxiety. When we begin to feel emotions, we can acknowledge how our breath is; how quickly we are breathing, where in the lungs are we taking our breath to, if we are holding our breath and if we feel any other symptoms such as light headedness, ringing in the ears, pain between our shoulder blades and headaches. Then we can take our awareness to bringing our breath into our abdominal area and use our diaphragms properly, slowing our breath down for a few minutes and noticing the differences.
This is the space where we realise the importance of breathwork.