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Why everything you know about breathing could be wrong

By Mary Birch 3 min read

The claim that deep breathing is good for us is one of the greatest myths perpetrated throughout most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.

Most of us assume that deep breathing is good for us—it’s what we were all brought up to believe. From kindergarten to senior citizens’ groups, at school or at a conference, we are all familiar with the standard advice: "Stand up and take nice big breaths!" Or: "Take a deep breath in and blow it all off . . . see how good that feels?" This belief in the power of deep breathing has been the prevailing—and mainly unchallenged—conventional wisdom for most of our lives.

Yet the truth is very different. There is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that deep breathing is good for us; in fact, for some people who are already over-breathing, it can be very bad indeed, and may exacerbate symptoms such as stress, anxiety and panic. The claim that deep breathing is good for us is one of the greatest myths perpetrated throughout most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.

If you are like the majority of people and have always believed that deep breathing is good for you, prepare to have this belief seriously challenged.

Claims that deep breathing is good for us and that we need to breathe deeply in order to get more oxygen in are two of the greatest myths perpetrated throughout most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. In fact, the reverse is true—the deeper we breathe, the less oxygen reaches the cells and tissues. This belief in the benefits of deep breathing is possibly due to a westernised version of eastern practices such as yoga and meditation, which were popularised in the latter half of the twentieth century and whose traditions then made their way into conventional wisdom, largely accepted unquestioned by the general population, and even by healthcare professionals such as myself.

This belief in the merits of deep breathing is something that I, as a registered nurse, accepted and adopted as a principle of professional practice. It was not until I read an article in The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) in 1998 about the first trial of breathing retraining for asthma in the western world using the Buteyko method (developed by a Russian doctor, Konstantin Buteyko, in the 1950s) that I started to research and question the potential benefits or harms of deep breathing.

My research found absolutely nothing to support the idea that deep breathing is good for the average person, and to my consternation I found that deep breathing is not only not good for us, it may in fact may be bad for some people, particularly for those with conditions such as asthma, angina, anxiety and panic disorder. (I am not speaking here about patients in hospital or even at home who are on some medications such as strong pain relief that may reduce breathing, or who have recently had surgery or anaesthetics and whose breathing may be shallow, in which case the emphasis on breathing more deeply is, of course, appropriate and correct. I am referring instead to the average person in the community who may have had symptoms of stress, anxiety and panic for months or even decades.)

In a world where we are constantly taught that deep breathing is good for us, it is interesting to look more closely at anxiety and panic symptoms. Both may include shortness of breath, but does this mean that people with these conditions are not breathing deeply enough? On the contrary, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that they are over-breathing, despite the fact that they may feel short of breath.

My client Fay was breathing rapidly and constantly trying to inhale more air, without success. She was also breathing through her mouth, which is generally not considered unusual in our society. But mouth-breathing is not a healthy way to breathe—the volume of air is increased when we mouth-breathe, and this increase in air volume leads to a disturbance in the balance of gases in the body and to adverse symptoms. Like many people, Fay did not relate her symptoms directly to her breathing pattern but attributed everything to stress. What she did not realise was that she was over-breathing considerably and this was causing symptoms and adding to her stress levels. When Fay normalised her breathing pattern through breathing retraining, the symptoms disappeared, as did the high stress levels.


This is an extract from Breathe: The 4-week breathing retraining plan to relieve stress, anxiety and panic by Mary Birch. Published by Hachette Australia RRP $32.99. Permission to publish this extract was granted by the author.

Any advice in this book (and article) is general in nature and is not intended as a substitute for medical advice and must not be relied upon as such. For any healthcare advice, always consult a healthcare practitioner.

 

Mary Birch is an expert on breathing retraining. Since starting her Melbourne breathing retraining practice in 1999, Mary has successfully helped numerous clients experiencing stress, anxiety and panic to improve their breathing pattern.