Why does everyone keep telling me to breathe?

Words by Sigrid (she/her) 21 QLD

Are you breathing right now?

Clearly, yes. And clearly, you were breathing before I asked you this question.

But now I’ve drawn your attention to it:

to whether you’re breathing through your mouth or nose,

to how fast or slow,

how deep.

Now, it is you in control of the once-unconscious rhythm that keeps you alive. Observing this is what first helped scientists to understand that breathing can be controlled both consciously (by thinking) and unconsciously (without thinking). I’m going to teach to how to use breathing as your own secret weapon.

What’s the difference?

Unconscious breathing is like driving an automatic car – without your help the car shifts between gears.

In your body, it’s the brainstem and spinal cord that automatically control your breathing. Together, these form the Autonomic Nervous System (yes, there is a reason why the word “autonomic” looks a lot like “automatic”), which is responsible for all the unconscious bodily processes that keep you alive – like your lungs breathing, your heart beating, and your stomach digesting. It is also responsible for our fight, flight or freeze response to stress.

On the other hand, conscious breathing is like driving stick – as the driver, you must manually shift between gears yourself.

It is not automatic, so it is no longer controlled by the Autonomic Nervous System. Instead, it uses the Somatic Nervous System, which looks after everything you have to think about doing before you do it (like making a decision, singing with your sisters, or reaching to grab your third coffee of the day). The Motor Cortex (in your brain) is the part of this that helps you move your muscles, like your diaphragm and those around your ribcage that you use to consciously control your breathing (you can feel them in action by gently squeezing your ribs as you take a deep breath in; notice how much your muscles pull apart your rib cage to let your diaphragm suck more air into your lungs).

Turns out, the fact that our bodies and brains are hardwired to allow us to breathe both consciously and unconsciously is actually an incredible superpower in disguise. It means that we can control our own breathing, and weaponize it to improve our health.

Why does everyone keep telling me to breathe?

The practice of conscious breathing (called breathwork) has for centuries been a crucial part of Eastern cultures through spiritual and meditative practices like Buddhism and Tai Chi. However, the Western world’s fascination only really exploded in the early 1960s. Suddenly, there were breathwork models developed for clarity of mind, for trauma release, and to be practiced exclusively in bathtubs, just to name a few. One such model, developed by elite endurance athlete Wim Hof (a.k.a the Iceman), even allowed him to train his body and brain to withstand sub-freezing temperatures for hours on end. Now with the rise of social media, modern practices of breathwork have exploded yet again, popularised as the “latest health-craze” or a “miracle cure-all.”

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the (often contradictory, convoluted, and non-scientific) information online about breathwork, know that you are absolutely not alone. It feels like suddenly everyone is telling us to breathe, breathe, breathe, but no-one is actually teaching us why or how.

Let me help with this.

Breathwork is not by any means a “miracle cure-all,” but when done right it can be an incredible superpower. Earlier I explained how we have the ability to breathe both consciously (with our Somatic Nervous System) and unconsciously (with our Autonomic Nervous System). This dual-control system (a very rare phenomenon in the human body) means that we actually have the power to manipulate our automatic bodily processes, including our response to stress, by using our breathing. This benefits our bodies in so many ways, like decreasing cortisol (our body’s main stress hormone), increasing feelings of calmness, and improving sleep quality.

But only when done in ways backed up by science. Let me make this easier for you.

The How

The “Physiological Sigh” is a simple but powerful breathwork technique, as advised by leading neuroscientist from the Stanford School of Medicine, Dr. Andrew Huberman (check out his podcast, Huberman Lab). It uses not one, but two inhales before exhaling to ensure that every tiny blood vessel in your lungs captures as much oxygen as possible, making this the quickest and most effective way to calm your nervous system.

Try it with me (or see it demonstrated by Dr. Huberman here):

  1. Slowly inhale through your nose, hold that breath.
  2. Whilst still holding your breath, add an extra quick inhale through your nose.
  3. Push all the air out of your mouth in a very long, controlled exhale.
  4. Repeat again if needed.

Clearly, looking after your body and brain doesn’t need to be complicated, it just needs to be informed.

For more like this: Whispers of Courage: Confronting the Shadow of Panic, Take a breath (during the COVID-19 crisis)


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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