I’ve always been an A student, which is why it was totally deflating when I got a D (a D!) on the most basic of assignments: breathing. After monitoring my inhalations and exhalations, clinical psychologist Belisa Vranich, PsyD, author of Breathe, gave me my near-failing grade on this most basic of bodily functions, with just one small consolation: 9 out of 10 people are just as bad at it as I am. It turns out that most adults are shoulder breathers; when we inhale, our shoulders rise, engaging the upper back muscles. This type of vertical breathing only makes space for air in the narrowest, tippy-top part of the lungs, says Vranich. It’s the exact opposite of how the body was designed to breathe … and such shallow breaths actually send danger signals to the nervous system, spiking stress hormones.
The result: “Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up, and your immune system goes down,” explains Vranich. Yup, even if you’re in the middle of a massage or sitting on the couch, watching the hilarious Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. You maybe laughing, but your body thinks you’re stressed out.
The trouble starts in elementary school. Most very young kids are horizontal breathers, says Vranich. When they inhale, it looks like there’s a balloon in their bellies — air enters and expands the biggest part of their lungs. But once in the classroom, they pick up the bad posture that comes with sitting all day. And slumping crushes your diaphragm muscle and blocks the lower lungs from expanding.
Cultural cues make things worse. We’ve been conditioned to accept that a shoulder raise can be the best way to take in air (doctors place their stethoscope on our chests and say “deep breath”; allergy ads feature actors puffing up like Superman to signal opened airways). Then there’s the pressure to have a flat stomach. Stick out my middle each time I take a breath? Never!
A healthier response: Always. Deeper belly-breathing will make you calmer and happier. “When you breathe horizontally, your vagus nerve — it starts at the back of your head and runs all the way through your body — tells your brain to get into rest-and-digest mode,” says Vranich. Meaning, you’ll feel less tense, sleep better, have less stomach drama, and fortify your immune system. I, for one, am breathing easier already.
3 Ways to Chill, Stat
Deep belly-breathing leads to less stress in general, but it can’t cure all anxiety. Next time you find yourself in the midst of mental turmoil, practice one of these specific breath exercises from Andrew Weil, MD, founder and program director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
When you’re angry: try breath counting
Sit in a comfortable position with back straight, heads lightly forward. Close eyes and take a few deep, natural breaths, counting from one as you exhale each time, up to five. Start over and continue for up to 10 minutes.
When you’re tossing and turning: try the 4–7–8 breath
Hold the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth (if it feels awkward, slightly purse your lips). Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale slowly through your nose as you count to four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound again for a count of eight. Repeat the cycle three more times.
When you’re nervous: try the 4–8 breath
Breath holding can make some people anxious, which is why you skip the seven-count hold here. With mouth closed and the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth, inhale slowly through your nose to a count of four. Exhale slowly and completely through the mouth with a whoosh sound, to a count of eight. Repeat three times.