The Breath of Life (Part 4)

In previous parts of this series [see 1, 2, 3] we have have been looking at the anatomy of breathing and how the process works at a physical level. We will now look at some common ways in which this mechanism can get upset and out of balance, both physically and emotionally (the breath is intimately connected with our feelings — in fact it is not really possible to make lasting changes to the way the body breathes without corresponding changes in our emotional responses and behaviour). 

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Postural Factors

In order for breathing to work freely and easily, the muscles of respiration need to be available to do their job. When we are physically out of balance and alignment then muscles which are best left free for breathing may have to be co-opted to help out with maintaining our upright posture. This limits and constrains the breath.

Breath Holding and Body Image

A common psychological impact on our breath is when we are shamed into a negative image about our body, and so habitually hold our stomach in and attempt to look thinner than we are. This pattern is very common in our culture ad can cause problems because, as we have seen, the belly muscles must be able to release on the in-breath to allow the diaphragm to descend. When we habitually hold these muscles it restricts the breathing, which has knock on effects for posture, alignment, self-expression, and energy flow throughout the body.

Fear and the Breath

One of the most potent emotions to impact on the breath is fear. Breathing is intimately connected with our basic survival systems. For example, we may automatically hold or limit our breath in situations where we feel insecure and unsure. This is linked to the evolutionary need to create absolute quietness in ourselves in order to listen more acutely for predators, or to be silent so that predators will not hear us. If we are often in situations where we feel unsafe or worried, we may get into the habit of holding our breath as we replay this ancient survival script.

Because of its links to the autonomic nervous system, breathing is also related to our deeper level flight/fight and freeze responses to danger. At one end of the scale we have the basic response to fear which is ‘fight or flight’. In this situation the organism prepares to flee or attack whatever is threatening it, and it increases the depth and speed of breathing in order to charge the system with oxygen for any necessary action. 

Alternately, in situations where the autonomic nervous system does not feel that it has a viable flight or fight option, the organism will shut down and go into a self-protective ’freeze’ response. In this situation the breathing becomes very shallow and may even stop completely for some time. 

Because the body’s ‘alarm system’ doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat and an emotional one (meaning anything which threatens our relationships with valued individuals or groups) it will tend to react to uncomfortable emotional events in a similar way to physical threats. If we have experienced intense or prolonged periods of emotional or physical threat or worry in our lives then some level of flight/fight or freeze response can become ‘locked in’ to our system. For example we may exhibit the shallow, collapsed, lifeless, breathing of someone who has tended to ‘freeze’ in the face of challenging life events. In this state we may find it difficult to take a truly full and free breath and thus we get stuck in in a small part of the lower end of our potential breathing range. 

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Alternately, we may be stuck to some extent in the high intensity breathing of an organism preparing for flight or fight — but be unable to fully express or discharge the pattern due to social pressures and norms. In this case we may ’tamp the response down’ with muscular tension, so that we end up breathing rapidly and shallowly high up in the chest, while preventing a full out breath by holding on in the belly and diaphragm. In this case our breath is trapped in a small zone at the top of our full breathing range and — because we have lost the ability to exhale fully — we no longer have access to the full range and ease of our breath.

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Positive Emotional States and Emotional Suppression

Of course, changes in breathing are also associated with positive emotional states. When we feel free and expansive this tends to be reflected in the breath. It’s hard to imagine feeling joy and lightness while tightly holding or constricting our breathing! Enjoyable activities like laughing, singing, expressive communication of different kinds, making love etc. all require the freedom to breathe expansively in order to be fully experienced and enjoyed.

However, if at some time in our lives we have come to believe that it is shameful to fully feel things, or that we are ‘not allowed’ to express ourselves, or that there is something selfish or not quite right in fully enjoying ourselves, we may feel a need to block the body’s normal tendency to want to experience such states. One of the most effective ways to do this (which is usually unconscious) is to hold on to the breath. This has the effect of shutting down the body’s ability to express and feel. It creates a (false) feeling of safety by dulling the threatening feeling — though at the expense of an ability to express, feel fully alive, and to experience a sense of joy and freedom in life.

Patterns of Disturbance

Disturbed breathing patterns take different forms depending on their cause, and the history and habits which have lead to them. Here are some of the more common ones:

Chest breathing. As we have seen, we may ‘hold on’ with our belly, pelvic floor and diaphragm, so that breathing happens mostly high up with the ribcage. This may be associated people who don’t feel safe to be fully in touch with their basic feelings and energy (which are experienced mostly in the belly). This pattern can result in tension and pain in the shoulders and neck.

Collapsed breathing. This is a different form of chest breathing where the shoulder, neck and upper chest ‘collapse’ and pull downwards — draining energy, spontaneity and expression. It tends to be associated with feelings of depression, stuck-ness and unfulfilled needs.

Frozen breathing. This is often found in people who have been exposed to a lot of fear, and is characterised by the outer musculature of the torso contracting and squeezing so that breathing is almost immobilised.

Gasping or ‘grabbing’ the breath. This is is when we gasp for the next breath without allowing the natural pause at the end of the previous exhalation. This sort of breathing can sometimes indicate someone who is always in a hurry and striving for the next thing, who can’t ever relax and allow life to come to them.

‘Throttling’ the breath. This happens when we constrict our airway through muscular tension in the throat. This is often found in people who have difficulty expressing themselves, or speaking what is on their mind.

Returning to Balance

It’s probably clear from the above that for many of us breathing in a more free and natural way is not simply going to be a matter of trying to do it differently! The way we breathe is a complex reflection of who we are, the experiences we have had, and the physical habits which have arisen as a result. Fortunately, however, the human organism is immensely adaptable and able to change In the final part of this series we will be looking at ways in which we can gently start to undo any tangles we have got into and allow the breath — and hence ourselves as a whole — to return to balance and wholeness.