For your Physical, Mental, and Spiritual
Health & Well-being - February 2003
MA Psychology/Behavioral Medicine
BS Music Therapy
Breathing is our first affirmation when we enter the world.
How do you breathe? Do you experience
shortness of breath, tightness, pressure or pain in your
chest, heart palpitations, hypertension, emotionality, impulse
control, phobias, migraine headache, attention disorders,
asthma, panic attacks or generalized anxiety, sleep disturbance,
jaw clenching, irritable bowel, chronic fatigue . . .
It may be as simple as the breath. . . Breathing
is both involuntary (quiet, shallow and from the belly)
AND voluntary. Many factors cause us to breathe more or
less, including stress, panic, emotion, exercise and habit.
Most of us breathe incorrectly out of habit. We are trained
to overbreathe. In times of stress, deliberation or motion,
we are encouraged to “take a deep breath.” We
have been taught that with every breathing motion, we inhale
healthy oxygen and exhale a toxic gas called carbon dioxide
(CO2). That big breath of oxygen is the ‘gas of life,’ while
CO2 is the ‘waste gas.’ Therein lies the confusion.
The Carbon Dioxide Myth… CO2 is
not a waste gas. It is one of the most important chemical
regulators of the human body, and it is essential for the
activity of our hearts, blood vessels and respiratory systems.
It enables oxygen to do its job and, in reality, we need
far more CO2 than we do oxygen. When we overbreathe we
are actually getting less oxygen, not more. Overbreathing
upsets the balance between CO2 and oxygen in the bloodstream
and the chemical bond between the oxygen and hemoglobin
(which carries oxygen through our blood) increases. This
means that the hemoglobin will not let go of the oxygen
it is carrying. As a result, the cells of our brains, hearts,
kidneys, and other organs have difficulty getting oxygen.
Myths and Misunderstandings about “Good” Breathing.
. . Good breathing means relaxation. No. Good breathing is
important is all circumstances, whether relaxed or not. Nor is relaxation
required to learn good breathing. Good respiration is all about the
mechanics of breathing. No. Good breathing means ventilating in accordance
with metabolic requirements. Diaphragmatic, deep, slow breathing means
better distribution of oxygen and is synonymous with good breathing.
No. Mechanics may look perfect, but oxygen distribution may be poor
and in many instances one may begin to overbreathe as a result of switching
from chest to diaphragm.
The Breathing Heart Wave . . . Heart rate changes
in cycles. These cycles comprise what is known as “heart rate
variability.” One of these cycles tracks the breathing pattern: “breathing
in” increases heart rate, and “breathing out” decreases
heart rate (also known as the respiratory sinus arrthymia or RSA) This
pattern of heart rate change (variability) increases in amplitude as
one relaxes, decreases in amplitude as one becomes tense and disappears
altogether when one becomes highly anxious, stressed, or fearful. Monitoring
this heart rate cycle, “the breathing heart wave, provides for
direct observation of parasympathetic nervous system activity.
Respiration: Chemistry and Mechanics. . . “Respiration” is
behavioral-physiologic balance, a form of self-regulatory actions that
moves and delivers oxygen to and removes CO2 from each and every cell
based on its specific metabolic needs. Breathing mechanics refers to
the rhythm of our breathing (holding, gasping, sighing), how fast or
deep we beathe, whether we use the chest, diaphragm or other muscles
and whether there is breathing resistance in the nose or mouth. Breathing
chemistry refers to the ventilation of CO2 through our breathing mechanics
to promote our best respiratory chemistry. Overbreathing has detrimental
effects on cognition, emotions and performance and can lead to chronic
Infinite Health—The Bridge invites you to actively
participate, learn and “see physiology as mindful.” This
means accessing the mind: intuition, images, feelings, archetypes and
meaning itself. Accessing the mind through body sensitivity training
is fundamental to what has come to be known as BIOFEEDBACK and is the
basis for breathing evaluation and training. Biofeedback monitors CO2
levels and heart rate variability and provides training both in breathing
chemistry and breathing mechanics. Breathing evaluation and training
bring together differing western schools of thought and tradition,
including physiology, psychology, healthcare, and human performance
with the promise of weaving them together with Eastern thinking, traditions
and practice into an active, personal and mindful participation in
behavioral-physiologic self-regulation for health and performance.
Mindful Respiratory Training. What will you learn?
The objective of training while “at rest” is to restore
proper breathing chemistry (CO2 levels), establish breathing rhythm,
lower breathing rate, increase breathing depth, shift the locus of
breathing from chest to diaphragm, encourage nasal breathing, relax
musculature during exhalation, reduce collateral muscle activity, and
establish stable presence of high amplitude heart wave activity (parasympathetic
tone, RSA). Training for good breathing chemistry involves learning:
1) to evaluate breathing both at rest and in the context of multiple
kinds of challenge; 2) about the physiology and psychology of respiration;
3) to identify the sensations of overbreathing, and reinstate the basic
brain stem breathing reflex; 3) interpret physiological experience,
e.g., deregulated vs. regulated breathing; 4) proper breathing mechanics:
rhythm, volume, rate, resistance and locus of control; 5) to instate
techniques for consciously disengaging or preventing overbreathing;
6) to generalize new patterns of breathing that normalize chemistry
in diverse life circumstances, and 7) to establish “embracement
physiology” and posturing by establishing new chemistry and is
associated “physiologic mindfulness.”
Examples of performance training applications include: improving memory,
enhancing thinking and problem solving, improving concentration (playing
an instrument), attention training (attention deficit), reducing anxiety
(public speaking, test taking), managing stress and anger, decreasing
fatigue, reducing muscle tension, diminishing physical pain, facilitating
relaxation and disciplines of inner directedness (meditation), natural
child birth preparation, peak performance training (athletes and coaches),
and evaluating and improving physical condition.
Good respiratory chemistry and mechanics set the stage for “embracement,” rather
than defensiveness, as a “life” posture. Wellness is ultimately
about embracing, about the heart, about bringing together the mindfulness
of physiology with the personal consciousness. Health is about seeking,
presence, and availability, not about ego and defensiveness. When egoless – open
and embracing all of life, don’t overbreathe, JUST BE.