Breathing just happens – as it’s often automatic – meaning we are rarely mindful of how we do it.

However, paying attention to your breathing is really important as it can be used to better manage a response to stressful situations.

In order to do that you first have to understand some basics when it comes to breathing.

Breathing is one of the bodily functions that can be controlled both consciously and unconsciously.

Unconscious breathing is controlled by the brain stem in response to demands required from the body. When physical activity increases so does a person’s Respiratory Rate (amount of breaths per minute) as well as Tidal Volume (volume of air per breath).

As the intensity of physical activity increases e.g. you walk faster, climb stairs or start running, riding or swimming, the amount of air that is required to deliver Oxygen to the body dramatically increases, and as a result both Respiratory Rate and Tidal Volume increase.

The average adult (at rest) physiologically requires about 4-6 Litres of air per minute. This is made up of 8-12 breaths per minute, with each breath containing about 500 mL of air and this is usually regular and smooth in rhythm in normal breathing.

However, when under stress, the body can trigger a response that alters this.

When we experience stress it triggers the brain stem to launch a series of automatic physiological changes. These changes include increased heart rate, muscle tone, blood pressure as well as breathing – and this state maintains until the parasympathetic system returns the body to its usual resting state.

This response is great when we have to respond to danger, but not so good for ongoing stressful experiences that cause anxiety or impair our ability to perform tasks. Examples of common stressors include pressures in the workplace, relationship difficulties, illness, financial burdens, parental demands, moving house, conflict with colleagues, a new born baby etc. and these stressors can negatively impact functioning – both in the short and long-term.

When in this hyper-aroused state, breathing can become dysregulated whereby the rhythm of breathing becomes erratic, irregular and the Respiration Rate and Tidal Volume can both rapidly increase, leading to over-breathing.

And unfortunately this can become an ongoing state – where the new norm is over-breathing.

However, if we can recognise when this happens i.e. pay attention to our breath, we can consciously control both our Respiratory Rate and our Tidal Volume and thus return to a habit of normal breathing.

This can be achieved when you make the active decision to alter your automatic breathing – and this can be practiced in 4 simple steps:

  • Pay regular attention to your breathing – check in regularly (e.g. every hour) and be mindful of when your breathing alters from normal breathing.
  • Breathe comfortably and gently (both in and out) through your nose (if you can) – as this will help keep a more even and balanced flow of air.
  • Aim for a Tidal Volume of between 8 -12 breaths per minute – try to ensure a regular rhythm.
  • Have an upright but relaxed posture – as this will assist the flow of air.

Changing your breathing is not easy – especially if you’re not aware of it – but with practice, patience and guidance it can be done.

John Pertl

Psychologist