The Science of Breathing

You do it every day. You do it every hour. You cannot survive without it for very long. Yet, unless you’re short of it, you probably don’t think much about it. Breathing.

Did you know that breathing is closely tied to your mental health? It makes sense when you think about it. We all need oxygen to survive. If you stop and notice the way you are breathing at any given moment, you could probably describe it as shallow. This type of breathing isn’t providing your brain with the optimal amount of oxygen.

And it could be contributing to feelings of stress and anxiety.



Image: AMSA Mental Health

Stress. Anxiety. Inability to function. Attempted suicide. This sounds like a possible description of challenges faced by patients sitting in the waiting room of a psychologist’s office. It shouldn’t be the experiences of those sitting in a college or university classroom.

But it is.

According to a study published in 2017 by the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), 65 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students have felt overwhelming anxiety. Fourteen per cent had contemplated suicide. These rates are climbing at an alarming pace. It is estimated that by 2020, mental health issues experienced by children, youth, and young adults will increase by 50 per cent.

Inforgraphic Shannon R

There are many reasons that post-secondary students are feeling overwhelming stress. The transition to a stressful learning environment, living away from home, and the shift to a new set of responsibilities all contribute to a worried state of mind.

Access to care for mental health on campuses varies according to a report released by the Ontario University and College Health Association (OUCHA). This can mean that post-secondary students are on long wait lists and run the risk of dropping out of school before they are able to receive help.

While seeking help is the most important step a person can take, there are other ways to improve mental health.



Image: Lazer Horse

Most of us were never taught how to breathe. Not surprising, since we are born knowing how to breathe properly. And then something happens. We begin to take shorter breaths. We breathe with our chest. We breathe with our mouths. And we hold our breath. All of these habits lead to a decrease of oxygen in our bodies.

This puts us in a constant state of stress.

Diaphragmatic breathing can help us take in an increased amount of oxygen and relieve this stress. But what is diaphragmatic breathing? Another term for this type of breathing is belly breathing. You should be inhaling deeply enough that your breath goes all the way down to your belly. The main muscle involved in this is your diaphragm; the muscle that sits underneath your lungs. The technique used in diaphragmatic breathing can be found here.


Image: Harvard Health Publishing

Diaphragmatic breathing has many health benefits including: stress relief, enhanced focus and improved immunity. These are all extremely important to post-secondary students, not only for physical well-being, but also to achieve their academic goals.



Image: Shutterstock
Stress causes the release of a hormone called cortisol in our bodies. Cortisol is produced in our adrenal glands. It is responsible for many functions:

  • Regulates our sleep/wake cycle
  • Keeps inflammation down
  • Fight or flight response
  • Regulates blood pressure

Once the stress has passed, cortisol levels should drop, and your body should return to a state of balance. But what if you are constantly under stress and these levels remain high? This is where we run into problems:

  • Causes anxiety and depression
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Problems with digestion
  • Weight gain
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Suppresses the immune system

How does diaphragmatic breathing help? It puts the body in a state of relaxation. Rhythmic, deep breathing will slow the heart rate and relax the muscles.



Image: Shutterstock

Our brain uses 20 per cent of the oxygen we take in. Lack of concentration, poor memory and scattered thoughts are all symptoms of oxygen deprivation. Using the diaphragmatic breathing technique (which includes breathing through the nose and the use of rhythmic breath) brings more oxygen into the body.

A study conducted in 2016 has shown that the rhythm of our breath can contribute to how well we remember. Breathing through the nose generates electrical activity in our hippocampus (the area of the brain linked to memory). This, combined with increased oxygen intake can allow the brain to recall information more efficiently.



Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When your body is in a constant state of stress, your immune system is suppressed. This can allow many pathogens to invade causing you to get sick.

A small study published in 2016 by the Medical University of South Carolina found that after just 20 minutes (divided into two sessions) of diaphragmatic breathing techniques, the test group’s inflammatory markers associated with stress were much lower than the control group.

Allowing your body a chance to relax can give your immune system a chance to do the job it was designed to do – fight off infection and disease.



Image: Wallsauce

The student experience can be described as exciting, challenging, and a period of growth. It doesn’t have to be described as a time of anxiety, overwhelming stress and thoughts of suicide.

We often take for forgranted our body’s ability to function optimally. We can be careless with the foods we put into our bodies. We don’t get enough sleep. We are on our screens too much. And we neglect our mental health.

The next time someone tells you to “take a deep breath” it may be a good idea to listen. It’s solid advice.

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