Take a deep breath

IN & OUT

Take a deep breath

While the average person breathes in and out more than 23,000 times a day, the majority of those breaths (especially when you’re awake) are short, shallow ones that just reach the chest. “Or what I call ‘stress breaths’,” says Rebecca Dennis from the Breathing Tree, a self-help course and series of workshops and retreats that teaches better breathing for the stressed-out and beehive-brained among us.

“Everyone makes themselves so stressed out by trying to do everything and be perfect,” says Rebecca. “But if we just breathe better, everything else will fall into place. And what’s great about proper, deep breathing is that it’s free, easy, you can do it anywhere and it improves everything from your stress levels to your heart health and digestion. Plus, it makes you more energised and productive — and it’s anti-ageing, too.”

Lack of mindfulness

But can all these benefits really come from something we do instinctively anyway? “I can always tell where a client is in the world by the way they breathe,” says Rebecca. “We’re born with the ability to breathe properly. If you look at babies, they take big, beautiful, connective breaths that fill their bellies with air causing it to expand, and then flatten when they breathe out. Children breathe this way too. But by adulthood, we become too busy to breathe properly — we take short, shallow breaths that fill our chests but not our bellies.
Often, this is down to stress. We spend so much time in our heads and not in our bodies, that breathing slips down our list of priorities during a busy day, and we get by on half-breaths.” Rebecca says the effects of all these half-breaths include raised heart rate, tension in the shoulders and jaw, digestive problems, anxiety, as well as higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can lead to sleep problems and exhaustion.

One recent study from Los Angeles Loyola Marymount University found that yoga breathing exercises improved lung function and eased allergies and asthma symptoms in the study participants. And the benefits of breathing may even extend to giving you younger-looking skin.

London-based holistic facialist Annee de Mamiel, who uses bespoke oils during treatments, says “A lot of my clients just don’t take the time to breathe properly. So I tell them, slow down, press pause for a while and breathe. Do this several times a day and not only will you notice a difference in your stress levels, but your skin too — it’ll become smoother, fresher and less tired-looking.”

Annee says she can always tell by a client’s face whether they breathe properly or not. “When you ‘panic breathe’, often, your cells don’t get the oxygen they need to function properly. Toxins build up and the skin on the face begins to age prematurely, in the form of fine lines, darkness under the eyes, puffiness in the face and a look of tiredness.”

Pushing for perfectionism

“Cultural stress is a term I came up with to describe this epidemic of everyday stress,” explains Dr Howard Murad, the US dermatologist, dubbed the Father of internal skincare, thanks to his inside-out approach in his book called Conquering Cultural Stress: The Ultimate Guide to Anti-Aging and Happiness. “There are far too many expectations on us: we need to look perfect, as do our homes. Our boss wants us to reply to his emails all evening. There’s more pressure for our children to do well at school. These stresses are ever-present. They’re not going away and you can’t ‘cure’ or avoid cultural stress. All you can do is change the way you handle it. If you don’t, you’ll find your sleep, happiness and health will suffer and you may even burn out. So, firstly, I’d say you have to ignore this pushing for perfectionism and give yourself permission to be happy, not perfect, in 2016. Stop trying to achieve and just take a breath instead.”

There is now a machine designed to help you breathe better. Named Freespira, it is being used in America to train patients with panic disorder to breathe slowly. The device measures respiration rate and carbon dioxide levels in exhaled breath, and uses verbal and visual prompts to adjust your breathing pattern to an optimal rate. A small study found that 68 per cent of patients were panic-free after using it regularly. This is because breathing too quickly causes an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, which creates panic-like symptoms. Breathing more slowly and deeply helps control blood pressure and anxiety.

So, how can we improve our breathing the lo-tech way? To take a proper (and free) breath, Annee says you should place your hand on your abdomen and breathe in deeply through your nose — not your mouth — so your abdomen expands and rises. “Hold for a few seconds and then release the breath, breathing out through your nose or mouth until your abdomen flattens once more. Do this once or twice, or as many times as you need to feel calm. Then return to whatever you were doing. It takes seconds,” says Annee.

“I also tell clients to have ‘breath triggers’. For example, if you get stressed on your train ride to work, take a deep breath every time the door opens at a new station. If you drive, take a deep breath every time you stop at a red light. It goes against what you usually do — that is, clam up, get stressed and start shallow breathing, but that won’t change the light from red to green or get you to work quicker. It will just pump cortisol round your body, which will make you feel worse. Taking a proper breath will refocus your mind and you’ll become more productive, rather than run ragged on adrenaline.”

Rebecca also advises you check your breath when you’re stressed or busy. “When you feel frenetic, think about what your breath is expanding — is it your belly, or just your chest? If it’s the latter, press pause and breathe.” Annee says you should also take a few deep breaths at times when you’re not stressed, like after you’ve brushed your teeth, while you’re doing your makeup or making dinner. “Set up small triggers throughout your day and, eventually, it’ll just become a habit. And don’t worry if you forget — the key is to not make proper breathing a huge deal or another thing for your to-do list. Just sprinkle it throughout your day and I promise you’ll feel so much happier.”

The Telegraph

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