How Are You Breathing?

a person with short brown hair with their eyes closed
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When was the last time you checked in with yourself? I don’t mean checking on your never-ending charge of work tickets or your personal to-do list. I mean checking in with your most basic functions: your mood, your pulse, and your breathing.

Creating a routine of checking in with yourself in this way is a great way to get in touch with how your body is reacting to and coping with the stresses of your day. It also provides a space to do just a little breathing exercise which can help ease those stresses and reset your mind.

Chest Breathing vs. Belly Breathing

On the short list of your personal check-in, ask yourself, “How am I breathing?” What part of your body moves when you inhale and exhale. Is it your upper chest or lower down toward your belly. How deeply are you breathing, and at what rate? Believe it or not, how you breathe affects more than just simple oxygen intake.

When I interviewed integrative psychotherapist Nicole Lovald, she said that, when working with clients, “the first thing [she] looks for is how someone is breathing.” She said, “When a client walks into my office, I check to see if they’re breathing into their chest, because that tells me they’re in the sympathetic nervous system and they’re in their stress response.”

To counteract shallow breathing, Nicole says we can “try to draw our breath down, lower into our body, into our lungs, lower into our ribcage, and that pushes on the diaphragm and makes our belly expand. So we call it belly breathing.”

Nicole says, “That’s the best practice that I’ve found throughout the days. Just to check in and notice, ‘Okay, how am I breathing? Where is my breath? Can I take some deep calming breaths down towards my belly?’”

Vagus Nerve

There’s science at work here. The positive effects of deep belly breathing is related to stimulating the vagus nerve. “When you breathe really slowly and fully and deeply,” Nicole explained, “you start to tone our vagus nerve,” which is “responsible for telling our bodies that we should be in fight or flight or freeze, or that we’re safe, we’re okay, and we can calm down.”

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system which controls involuntary body functions. It is tasked with regulating critical body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion, and, like all parts of our body, requires some regular upkeep in order to do its job well.

Sitting in front of a computer screen for long hours every day is not going to make for a well stimulated vagus nerve. Over time, the consequences of that inactivity lead to things like high blood pressure, shortness of breath, poor digestion, and even scarier long term health risks.

Breathing Takes Practice

Thankfully, it is pretty easy to make our vagus nerve happy, and one of the easiest, quickest, and effective ways is through deep breathing exercises. You don’t need any special equipment to try yogic breathing practices and you can even do them right at your desk. Here are some breathing practices to try.

Whether you leave a sticky note where you see it throughout the day, use an app on your phone, or even timebox it into your work schedule, I invite you to make time for regular, personal check-ins. Carve out a short, special, quiet space where you can consider the work of your vagus nerve and ask the important question, “How am I breathing?”