Breathe better, Feel better

There’s a reason so many of us get inspired to “spring” clean this time of year.  According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, spring is the time of year for cleansing, creating, more activity, more movement, growth and renewal.


Like the bare, dormant trees that are beginning to grow new buds and blossom, it’s time to harness the power of spring to shed old  behaviors and mindsets so we can welcome fresh life experiences, health, mental clarity and emotional well-being.  In everyday language, this means it’s time to release emotions that no longer serve us.  Emotions like these are usually rooted in anger, resentment, and procrastination.  Believe it or not, breathing is one of the best ways to help us regulate our emotions and destress.


How to Reset Our Breathing Patterns

In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson, of Harvard University, found that with just 90 seconds of deep breathing, we could lower our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate and simultaneously inhibit the production of stress hormones like cortisol.


Essentially 90 seconds of deep breathing inhibits our sympathetic fight or flight response and initiates the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response. When we allow our parasympathetic system to lead we also increase clarity and our ability to focus.


My Story

December 2016, I had my SECOND vocal cord surgery.  This time, it was to remove a giant polyp so I could speak without a huge struggle.  I was supposed to be on complete vocal rest for 7-days following the surgery.  On day seven, I was supposed to visit my vocal therapist and start vocal therapy.


However, when the vocal therapist heard the walrus sound coming out of me when I attempted to talk, she said, “Don’t make another sound, you could completely destroy your vocal cords.”  Then, she marched me down the hall into my surgeon’s office.


Apparently, my one of my vocal cords hemorrhaged during surgery.  A fact the doctor wrote down but only quickly discussed with us after the surgery.  He didn’t seem to think it was a big deal after the surgery, but on this day he struggled to find his calmest tone to inform me that he didn’t know if I would EVER get my voice back.  My voice is my living.  It’s also our connection to the people we love.  Especially our pets and babies who understand our tone of voice and can’t read!  To read more about my “voice” story check out the book “10 Stories of Strong Living,” a book I co-authored in 2016.


Sixty three days later, my voice began to work again.  Little bits at a time, I was able to speak again.  I was determined that I would protect my voice and never lose it again.  I’m sure you can understand why I took everything my vocal therapist seriously as I learned to talk again.  In fact, had my vocal therapist told me that learning to do back flips would strengthen my vocal cords, I would have run out and bought myself a leotard and gymnastics lessons!



The Power of Functional Breathing

Can you guess what my vocal therapist taught me first?  She taught me to breathe.  I religiously practiced the exercises my vocal coach gave me and I still use them today.  But my voice wasn’t the only thing that got better with my breathing practice.  The weight in my chest I felt when I got stressed went away.  I was able to calm my nerves and think more clearly in situations that made me nervous or angry, and my voice was a barometer to how stressed I was at any given time.  My voice was also a barometer to the quality of my breathing.


Unless you are a singer, most of us aren’t taught in school how to breathe functionally.  When we’re born, we take our first breath and we’re basically on our own in terms of breathing, aside from illness, from that point on.  Babies and small children breathe functionally, but between the ages of 5 and 10.  When we start school and we start sitting for hours at a time, our breathing begins to change and not for the better.  In fact, 90% of people today are not breathing functionally.


What Does Functional Breathing Mean?

Breathing functionally and deep breathing are different.  Both impact our physiology and our psychology.   When you watch a baby breathe you will see perfect functional breathing.  Her little rib cage expands outward when she breathes in and relaxes inward.  Her ribs come closer together, when she exhales.  Her shoulders stay relaxed and don’t rise at all when she breathes.  When we are “functionally breathing”, our diaphragm does 75 percent of the work and our rib muscles do only 25 percent of the work.  Our neck muscles and chest muscles are just hanging out for support.  They are not actually working.


Try this…. place one hand on your chest and one hand on your rib cage and take a deep breathe in.


Do you feel your shoulders and chest rise with your breath?  If you do, you are breathing dysfunctionally.  The truth is that most of us today are breathing with our chest and shoulders.  When your shoulders and chest rise during inhalation, your body is using your neck and shoulder muscles to lift your ribcage instead of allowing your diaphragm to do the work.  Although this may sound like an innocent partnership, it’s very destructive to our health, our mental wellbeing and our ability to focus and make wise decisions over the long term.


Your Heart Rate, Breathing and Nervous System

Your heart beat is the result of the arm wrestle between your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  We need input from both systems to survive and thrive.


The Parasympathetic Nervous System’s sole purpose is to keep us in a state of calm so we can grow, repair and thrive.   The PNS is our “rest and digest” nervous system.


When your PNS is dominating, you can connect to your creativity, solve problems, learn and grow.  You feel more mentally clear, your emotions are grounded and you can sleep when it’s time to sleep.


The Sympathetic Nervous System’s sole purpose is to keep you safe.  For example, if you’re on a hike in Park City with your friends and you all bump into a GIANT moose walking the opposite direction on the same path; your sympathetic nervous system is ready to save you!


In case the GIAGANTIC moose decides to plow you over, you would have only seconds to either get away or be crushed.  When you need to run and fight to save your life, you need your muscles and your mind to perform at their absolute best, with all their power and quickly.


Your body releases adrenaline which takes effect immediately.   You start taking in more oxygen with quick short breaths.  Your accessory neck and chest muscles start working hard to help your diaphragm and rib muscles pull in more oxygen (remember chest breathing).  Your blood is shunted to your largest muscle groups to help you sprint, climb and fight.  Your brain uses the adrenaline for energy to make split second (impulsive) decisions that don’t necessarily make sense in the big picture of your life, but that will save you in the moment.  (Maybe you should read that last sentence again?)


Hopefully you’re beginning to see the deeper problem.  Today our bodies respond to an angry spouse or kids, traffic, deadlines, bills, arguments and way more in the same way they are meant to respond to “fight-or-flight” life threatening situations.   We don’t experience this stress for 5 minutes, but instead for hours, days, weeks and months at a time.


Here’s What You Need to Know…

You may be sitting in traffic and start to feel stressed and your breathing will change to short, quick inhales.   OR you can be sitting on the couch reading this article with your shoulders up around your ears because that’s what your body is used to doing and breathing in little short, quick breaths since your shoulders and neck muscles are used to doing all the work.  BOTH situations are telling your body to fire your fight or flight/sympathetic nervous system.  This means we are living in a state of stress ALL OF THE TIME!


Try These Breathing Methods To Move Your Rib Cage

  1. Put one finger over one nostril and breathe in your other nostril.  (This really helped me to figure out how to breathe with my diaphragm.)


  1. Breathe all of your air out through your mouth for 8 counts. When you get to count #7 pretend to blow out a candle (so you get most of the air out of your lungs).  Then inhale through your nose for 4 counts and hold that air in for 7 counts.  Then exhale through your mouth for 8 counts.  Do these 4 to 8 rounds and you will have turned on your parasympathetic nervous system again.
Picture of Amanda Mittleman

Amanda Mittleman

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