Tips for Breathing Through Anxious Times - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Changing how you breathe will place your body in a state of calm and make your respiratory system work the most efficiently.
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We’re living amid a global pandemic, so what better time to breathe easier?

By Tracy Moran

These are anxious times, thanks to COVID-19 and protests over racial inequity and police brutality. OZY asked James Nestor, a San Francisco–based journalist and the author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, how we can breathe a little more easily.

What are most people getting wrong about breathing and why? 

James Nestor: Too many people are breathing too much and too deeply. I know that seems counterintuitive, since you’d think you should be breathing more to get more oxygen into your body. But actually, the opposite happens. Overbreathing is not giving you more oxygen more easily. It’s overworking your body and, in some cases, it’s denying you circulation and cutting off the flow of oxygen. So that’s the first thing: Slow down and take less. 

Try humming, which increases nitric oxide fifteenfold. Hum for five minutes a day, and it will make a difference.

But isn’t holding your breath a stress-related response we should avoid?

Sure. But there’s a difference between breathing rate and tidal volume. People who are extremely anxious are going to huff and puff. They’re going to be breathing right into their chest, but they’re going to be breathing way too much. Their tidal volume will be off the charts. What happens when you breathe this way is you blow off too much carbon dioxide.

But carbon dioxide is bad for the environment, so isn’t expelling it a good thing?

Most of us know that it’s the big problem in climate change; it’s the stuff that comes off rotten fruit, but our bodies need proper levels of carbon dioxide to remain in balance. And when we breathe too much — we breathe up into the chest — we’re blowing off too much CO2, which causes stress, which inhibits circulation throughout the body. This is why lots of people with anxiety and panic feel tingling in their fingers, even numbness, and why their hands are always cold, because they’re inhibiting proper circulation to those areas by breathing too much.

Is there anything surprising about our breathing that can tell us something about ourselves?

It’s a reflection of your psychological and physical state. Usually when you get sick, your breathing is the first thing to go. But it’s also one of the mechanisms that we can control. We can’t control how fast our heart rate is going to be. We can’t control how well we’re going to digest food. But we can control our breathing, and by doing so, we can then take control of those other functions that we ordinarily don’t have control over. We can willingly slow our heartbeat. We can increase circulation. We can ease digestion … so it’s really the anchor to so many of the body’s functions.

How do you quantify good breathing?

Do you have the right combination of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream? Are you struggling to breathe? Are you snoring? Is breathing difficult? Can you hear yourself breathe? Can other people hear you breathe? All of those things are markers of breathing health. If one of those things is off, you’re likely going to cause injury or stress to your body.

What are some practical tips to develop better breathing habits?

There are so many of them. There are tons of books on pranayama and yogic breathing. You can pick dozens of different methods and they’re all going to do the same thing: Instruct you to be conscious of your breathing, slow it down and breathe a little deeper. There are obvious ways of doing that, but one of the easiest practices, and one that I’ve seen be completely transformative for people, is to inhale about five to six seconds and exhale for five to six seconds, both through the nose. Just doing this is going to put your respiratory system in a state of harmony and synchrony with the rest of your body and allow you to do more with less breath. 

Why is nose breathing so important, and how can people with allergies overcome nasal issues?

Around 50 percent of the population habitually breathe through their mouth, either because they can’t breathe through their nose or because they’ve become unaccustomed to doing that. You need to breathe out of your nose, and I could give you a laundry list of reasons why. Here are just a couple: You are able to absorb more oxygen breathing out of your nose. You get much more nitric oxide, which has a vast and instant increase of circulation, and helps with a number of different physiological functions. And you breathe easier. You breathe deeper because when you breathe through your nose, that pressure pushes the soft tissues at the back of your mouth back open a little more and allows you to take in more air. When you breathe through the mouth, all that stuff comes forward.… The more you breathe out of your nose, the more the nose opens up. So it’s really a “use it or lose it” thing. The more you mouth breathe, the more you’ll mouth breathe in the future. 

Any tips for retraining ourselves to breathe correctly?

Try humming, which increases nitric oxide fifteenfold. Hum for five minutes a day, and it will make a difference, because nitric oxide plays a role in immune function, weight, circulation, mood and sexual function. We’re really denying ourselves so much nitric oxide by not breathing from our nose.

What are some breathing tips for reducing anxiety, given that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic?

People with chronic anxieties and panic, and even other fear-based conditions like anorexia or agoraphobia, traditionally have much less CO2 than other people because they breathe far too much and blow off way too much CO2. So what a lot of therapists try to do is increase that CO2 in the body, increase circulation and calm the mind. You can do that by extending your exhales. Breathe in for a count of about three and then extend your exhales to a count of six or even nine. This will stimulate your parasympathetic response, which is the relaxation or calming response. It’s going to slow your heart rate right down and increase circulation throughout your body. That’s a very easy and quick little hack. 

Take a calm five- to six-second inhale and a very calm five- to six-second exhale. Perhaps set an alert on your phone to remind you to do that for a couple of minutes every hour or every other hour. It will place your body in a state of calm and make your respiratory system work the most efficiently.

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