Before I became a respiratory therapist, I thought that I knew how to breathe. I guess I just took it for granted that you inhale and exhale and that’s it. But it turns out that there are many breathing techniques that can help in various situations (i.e., stress, shortness of breath, and anxiety.) I will discuss just a few breathing techniques that we employ for our lung impaired patients, and some techniques that are used to help with stress or anxiety.
In the western world, we don’t breathe properly. We are a bunch of “shallow breathers” who quickly go about our business to get to the next task. The total lung capacity of an adult male is approximately 6 liters of air (the size of three large soda bottles). But when we breathe, on average we only take in about 0.5 liters of air each breath, and for people with impaired lungs, it is even less. When we are stressed or short of breath, we tend to pant or take shallow breaths. This does not allow the full amount of oxygen to enter the bloodstream and it causes us to blow off too much of our carbon dioxide.
This is a breathing technique that is taught to every patient who is diagnosed with lung disease and becomes short of breath. It can be used by anyone at any time and is employed by weightlifters and bodybuilders routinely. The premise of this technique is that by “pursing” the lips, you create a back pressure in the airway keeping it from prematurely collapsing down on exhalation. To do this maneuver, the patient is instructed to breathe in deeply through the nose only and exhale through pursed lips. This also helps to slow breathing down and keep carbon dioxide from being expelled too quickly. It also allows oxygen time to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Also called “belly breathing”, this technique is employing the diaphragm instead of the rib and neck muscles to do the work of breathing. Our diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that pulls down on the lungs to fill them and pushes upon them to empty them. People who suffer from lung disease have damaged diaphragms. Either the diaphragm is no longer functioning as it used to because of “over-inflation” of the lungs pushing down on the muscle making it flat instead of dome-shaped or the nerve that innervates it is impaired. To perform diaphragmatic breathing, it is recommended that the patient sit comfortably and place a hand on the belly. When inhaling through the nose, the belly should rise and exhalation should be done through the mouth for twice as long as inhalation. Not only does this help to fill and empty the lungs properly, but it is also a form of mindful breathing and can help with anxiety and stress.
This is an excellent and easy way to practice mindful breathing. Simply put, you breathe in slowly through the nose for a full four seconds, hold that breath in for 7 seconds, and slowly, slowly exhale for a total of 8 seconds. It helps to slow down breathing and the absorption of oxygen. It also helps to slowly expel carbon dioxide from the lungs. I am a practitioner of this technique and it has been a fantastic way for me to decrease stress and anxiety.
Breathing techniques are important for energy conservation as well as for overall well-being. If you suffer from breathing issues or are short of breath with certain activities of daily living, try to use an alternative way to breathe so that you can be more comfortable when you are active. None of these techniques are dangerous. You can perform them anywhere at any time to help overcome some of your breathing obstacles.
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My name is Laura Castricone and I am a Certified Respiratory Therapist. I have been practicing in the state of Connecticut since 1992. I have worked in several aspects of respiratory care ...
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