Updated: May 18
There was a time when all humans used to breathe deeply and efficiently when we were young children. Just watch a newborn as it sleeps, each inhale and exhale as slow and rhythmic as the last. If you’re watching closely, you’ll probably be immediately struck by how peacefully young children sleep, hence the phrase “sleeping like a baby.”
However, as time went by, the need to breathe at a shallower rate became more crucial, despite how detrimental it can be to our health in the long term. Whether by cultural pressures, or the desire to stay focused for longer, at some point, most people lose their ability to breathe deeply as a reflex, instead defaulting to a quicker, shallower style of breathing.
In today’s blog, we will explore the nature of shallow breathing and how this bad habit is detrimental to our long-term mental and physical well-being.
The reasons we engage in regular shallow breathing are many. However, societal and cultural pressures have led many to believe that breathing “from the chest” rather than from the belly is a sign of a “correct” breathing technique.
Now, if the goal is to stay perpetually ready to fight your fellow man, then sure, shallow breathing is mainly beneficial. However, if you’re looking to relax after a hard day of work, or take a break from the stresses of the day, shallow breathing can be largely detrimental.
But how does breathing like this affect us so dearly? Could it be that we really put our bodies through un-needed pressures simply by the way we breathe? To answer briefly, yes. And the reason this happens is because of how breathing affects our nervous systems:
Nerves of Steel
The sympathetic nervous system manages your body's fight-or-flight response, while the parasympathetic controls its ability to rest.
Both systems have their pros and cons; for example, the sympathetic nervous system is perfect for moments of danger and signals to the body to start producing chemicals, such as adrenaline, to help the body respond quickly to sources of danger. However, that doesn’t mean the autonomic nervous needs to be used all of the time.
By breathing at a shallower rate more regularly, we’re not allowing our bodies to ever truly relax, with the autonomic nervous system getting priority to activate the stress response more consistently. This can lead to long-term issues, such as wear on the cardiovascular system and increased perceived anxiety as the body becomes reliant on adrenaline and other stress chemicals to operate.
In addition, shallow breathing also leads to lower amounts of white blood cells in the body, known lymphocytes, which defend the body from harmful organisms, making you more susceptible to illness while also prolonging your ability to recover.
Conversely, deep breathing allows the body to stimulate the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing heart rate and reducing the production of adrenaline. This also helps by dilating the blood vessels, lowering blood pressure, and allowing oxygen to be more easily carried around the body.
For more information regarding how to manage your breathing for a more effective lifestyle, visit our other blogs here at The Exhale to get the latest tips and tricks. For free guided breathing exercises that you can take anywhere, try out the Breathwrk app here.
And remember: Breathe Better, Live Better.