Do Not Take a Deep Breath
What you need to know for healthy, calm breathing.
Posted Dec 23, 2019
I am drafting this while sitting in an airplane that was supposed to have been in the air four hours ago, missing a connecting flight, and being told by the airline that they cannot get me and my family to our final destination any time soon. And getting there soon is actually pretty important. Two of my kids are taking part in a competition that they’ve been excited about for months. Not getting there on time for the competition spells one word: Disaster.
Let’s just say that it's been a stressful day. And whenever I tell someone just how stressful my day is, the advice I get most commonly is “just take a deep breath." Whatever your plans are, there will likely be a time when someone tells you to “just take a deep breath."
As well-meaning as that advice is, it is actually not the most helpful one. How can that be? How can something that so many of us are advised to do on a regular basis not be helpful? The reason is a common misconception about breathing that underlies this advice. Let me dispel this misconception and suggest a breathing technique that will be helpful when you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or just not having a good day, during the holidays or any day.
The idea behind taking a deep breath when you are stressed is to get more oxygen. And herein lies the misconception—you do not actually need more oxygen, unless, of course, you are physically exerting yourself. If you are sitting in a chair, or standing in line, lying in bed, talking with someone, or engaging in most daily activities, you do not need more oxygen. There is about 21 percent oxygen in the air you breathe in and about 15 percent oxygen in the air you breathe out1; you get plenty of oxygen in every breath you take, and you do not need to make an effort to inhale more.
You do, however, need to make sure that the oxygen you inhale gets used by your organs. And this is where the trick lies: Turns out, in order for your organs to get the oxygen they need, you don’t need more oxygen; you need to conserve your carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide—the one typically portrayed as Public Enemy number #1—is actually super important to maintain proper breathing chemistry.
Carbon dioxide is the gas that cells in your body produce as a result of metabolism. Carbon dioxide is crucial to the distribution of oxygen. Without sufficient carbon dioxide in your bloodstream, the oxygen that is circulating in your blood does not get released in sufficient quantities, and your brain, muscles, and other organs become deprived of oxygen. Not good!
This happens because oxygen distribution is regulated through your pH (acid-base) level. When oxygen enters your bloodstream from your lungs, it binds to hemoglobin, which then carries oxygen to where it needs to go. Hemoglobin releases oxygen in accordance with your body’s metabolic needs.
When you are more active, your metabolism increases, your body produces more carbon dioxide (which is acidic), and the acidity of your blood rises. This signals hemoglobin to release more oxygen. However, if you breathe out too much carbon dioxide—a behavior called over-breathing—your blood becomes too alkaline, and mistakenly signals the hemoglobin that you don’t need as much oxygen. As a result, you end up with plenty of oxygen circulating in your bloodstream, but not being released to your brain and other organs.
When your brain and other organs are deprived of oxygen, you experience things like light-headedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, pounding heartbeat, nausea or stomach discomfort, tingly or numb fingers or toes, a fuzzy mind, and difficulty thinking straight, difficulty concentrating, speaking clearly, and forming coherent thoughts. You have probably experienced these symptoms without knowing that they may be breath related. People often interpret these feelings as anxiety or stress. And when you feel stressed, you may try to take deep breaths in order to get more oxygen.
So, when you are feeling stressed, in an effort to get more oxygen, you end up taking big deep breaths, which deliver a large volume of air into your lungs (which, if you remember, you don’t need). The same volume that comes in, must also come out. If you breathe all that air out too quickly, you breathe out too much carbon dioxide, the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood decreases, and you get less oxygen going to where it needs to go and the symptoms that you may have wanted to get rid of continue or even get worse.
So, what can you do instead? Breathe low and slow. This kind of breathing will allow you to take in just the right amount of oxygen and also conserve your carbon dioxide so that the oxygen you are taking in will go to where it needs to go.
Here are the steps to low and slow breathing:
- Shift your breath from your chest to the belly. It helps to imagine a balloon in your belly; every time you breathe in, you gently expand the balloon, and every time you breathe out, you gently deflate the balloon. (It helps to loosen your belt or wear loose clothing to be more comfortable breathing this way, especially with all the holiday food around!)
- Take a normal size comfortable breath in (remember there is no need for a big breath; shifting your breath to the belly will deepen your breath naturally and sufficiently).
- Exhale as slowly as you comfortably can. Allow your exhalation to be longer than your inhalation. If you have trouble slowing down your exhalation through the nose, then exhale through pursed lips, as if you are blowing out a candle. A much slower exhalation through pursed lips will allow you to breathe out your carbon dioxide over a longer period of time, giving your body time to make more and maintain proper levels of carbon dioxide in your blood.
- Do not rush to the next inhalation. Let your body inhale for you when it's ready. And let your next inhalation again be a normal-size comfortable one, followed by a long, slow, complete exhalation.
- Breathing low and slow for five minutes will allow the intensity of the sensations you experience to decrease. Of course, you can breathe for longer if you wish. And even a few low and slow breaths will help in a stressful situation.
In an upcoming post, I will expand more on the physiology of breathing and discuss what to do at a time of high anxiety or panic-like symptoms when you may have more trouble regulating your breath.
I hope you have plenty of time in your future for self-care and connection with others. And remember, don’t breathe deeply, try breathing low and slow when you need a break.
In case you are curious, we did get to where we needed to go; much later than expected, but still in time for the competition. The kids did great, and I did a lot of low and slow breathing along the way.
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 Your oxygen intake is different at higher altitudes (higher than 5000 ft (~1500m) elevation) and if you have a heart or lung problem that does not allow sufficient oxygen intake. I will discuss this more in future blogs. The same principles still apply, and breathing practices I discuss here are still helpful but will require some modification.