Sleep and breathing are something you just do right? - but with a reported 80% of Irish people being sleep deprived, this obviously isn't always true. Today I look at why breathing techniques could help you get a more restful nights sleep, and provide 3 techniques for you to try.
External factors, like stress, affect how we breathe. When we are stressed, several things are happening in our body at the same time. When our sympathetic nervous system is triggered it's as if someone has pressed heavily on the car accelerator. It gives us a burst of energy (increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate) to help us face the danger or stress in front of us.
After the threat is gone, the body returns to normal with the help of the nervous system. Unfortunately today, the threats we face are becoming more and more constant. In simpler times; a bear comes thundering towards me in the woods; it catches me or I escape. The threat is gone after a short while and my nervous system has a chance to regulate so I can de-stress.
The threats we face today are more ongoing, we get stuck in traffic, miss a call from our boss, run a red light and loose our parking space. That's all before entering the office or checking the daily news! Hence, chronic stress is becoming more and more of a problem for more and more people. We see this in the numbers of people with anxiety, depression, insomnia and stress related illnesses. Two thirds (67%) of UK adults suffer from disrupted sleep. 80% of Irish people are sleep deprived and it is estimated that one in nine individuals will suffer a primary anxiety disorder over their lifetime.
There are many ways that we can counter the effects stress has on our bodies and minds. Herbal remedies are one way of helping our nervous system regulate, breathing is another. It's one of the simplest things in the world, we barely give it a second thought but don't let the simplicity fool you. It is a powerful tool. Breathing more deeply allows for more carbon dioxide to enter your blood, which quiets down parts of the brain, like the amygdala, that handle your anxiety response. More carbon dioxide also helps synchronise your heartbeat and breathing. Deep breathing (sometimes called diaphragmatic breathing) can also help you improve your attention span and lower pain levels.
There are many breathing techniques that can calm you down and send you to sleep but don't wait until bed time to de-stress. Our daily life is full of stressful situations. The best way to deal with them is little by little throughout the day. So that, by the time you get to bed, stress is minimal and sleep comes easy. One way to do this is to make sure you are breathing correctly throughout the day.
When we get stressed our breath becomes shorter and shallower. Because we don't notice, we keep breathing this way and becoming more and more stressed. That's why it's a good idea to check if you are breathing properly at various points throughout the day.
So what is the correct way to breathe?
Although breathing is a natural process, there is a right and a wrong way to breathe. The American Lung Association (ALA) provide the following advice on how to breathe correctly.
Use the nose - Breathing through the nose can slow the breath and make the lungs work more efficiently. It also facilitates the intake of nitric oxide, which helps with oxygen transportation throughout the body. Breathing through the nose also allows the nostrils to filter toxins from the air and regulate cold or warm air that is too cold or dry.
Use the belly - The most efficient way to breathe is by bringing the air down toward the belly. As the diaphragm contracts, the belly expands to fill the lungs with air.
Do not overthink it - Although it is useful to know how to breathe correctly, it is important not to overthink breathing. In some people, this could lead to anxiety and shortness of breath.
My Self-Care Tip: Daily Breath Check-in
I recommend checking in with your breath at several intervals throughout the day. I tag this activity on to things I do daily so that I remember. When I sit at my desk to start work, as I wait for my laptop to load up I check in with my breath. I do it again, while I wait for the kettle to boil on my tea break. Identify 3 or 4 daily routines that you could tag this breath check on to.
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Once you are breathing properly you can begin to add some techniques to lengthen and deepen your breath. These work well at any time of day but they are really helpful if you are having trouble sleeping.
Remember, these techniques are just signposts to lead you to fuller, deeper breathing and relaxation. If any of them don't feel helpful or they make you more stressed, then you can just repeat the breath check in that I shared in my self-care video instead. The wonderful thing is, even if all you do is notice your breath and nothing else, it will naturally deepen and lengthen so there is no need to over think it.
1. Deep belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing
Place both hands on the abdomen, feeling the rise and fall of each breath.
Close the mouth and take a slow breath in through the nose, while feeling the abdomen rise and inflate like a balloon.
Breathe out slowly through pursed lips, as if blowing bubbles, with each expiratory breath taking about two to three times as long as each inhalation.
Repeat these steps for 5–10 minutes. Keep the hands on the abdomen to help improve awareness of the correct breathing technique.
2. Pursed lip breathing
Sit down in a chair and relax the neck and shoulder muscles.
Breathe in slowly through the nose while keeping the mouth closed. Inhale for 2 seconds.
Pucker or purse the lips, as if whistling or blowing out a candle. Exhale slowly for 4 seconds.
Repeat the above steps.
3. 4-7-8 breathing
Allow your lips to gently part.
Exhale completely, making a breathy whoosh sound as you do.
Press your lips together as you silently inhale through the nose for a count of 4 seconds.
Hold your breath for a count of 7.
Exhale again for a full 8 seconds, making a whooshing sound throughout.
Repeat 4 times when you first start. Eventually work up to 8 repetitions.
It can take some time to become more aware of how you are breathing and use it as a tool to de-stress. If you need extra help while you develop this new skill, I recommend using a herbal remedy designed for calming you down. My favourites are:
Valerian Complex – can help you cope with the pressures that build up throughout the day, reducing symptoms of stress and mild anxiety.
Avenacalm –can be useful when you are facing mild stress or experiencing mild anxiety. It can also be used to help you sleep.