Are you constantly exhausted? Do you feel anxious, have trouble sleeping, and yawn or sigh frequently? Is your mouth often dry, and your thinking frazzled? If two or more of these symptoms feel familiar, fatigue brought on by the way you breathe could be the culprit.
What doctors call “dysfunctional breathing” is really just shallow breathing. And the good news is, it’s easy to reprogram your breathing to ease stress, improve sleep and restore energy. Scientists in Pulmonary Medicine recommend this simple exercise, which can expand your rib cage by 17 percent, making it easier to take deep breaths and reinforce healthy breathing.
Here’s how to do it: Once a day, lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat, hands on your thighs. Breathe deeply, then push your hands into your thighs, suck in your belly and, without taking a breath, expand your rib cage. Hold for a few seconds, then relax and breathe normally. Repeat up to five times.
How Stress Leads to Fatigue
High levels of stress and anxiety alter normal breathing patterns to make millions of women tired and foggy, asserts Kristoffer Rhoads, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Washington. “Stress shifts us to a shallow, rapid type of breathing through the mouth and chest instead of taking deep breaths through the nose, belly and diaphragm,” he explains. This disrupts the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood to keep us in fight-or-flight mode, creating a cycle of anxiety that leads to insomnia, fatigue and more.
How can deep breathing help?
“Taking full, deep breaths using the diaphragm can relieve stress and help your breathing pattern return to normal,” says Bruce Levy, M.D., chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School.
Harvard research shows that deep breathing reduces the risk of chronic stress by 67 percent. To get the perks, Dr. Levy advises the 4-7-8 technique: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. Repeat three times a day or whenever you’re stressed, focusing on inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
Ward off COVID-19 complications with this breathing technique.
Deep breathing can strengthen lungs to help prevent respiratory complications of COVID-19, says pulmonologist Bruce Levy, M.D., who cares for COVID-19 patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “And in someone who has COVID, deep breathing would help resolve the illness more quickly and help prevent secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia or bronchitis.”
Why? “Deep breathing is almost like wringing out a wet sponge. It mobilizes air exchange all the way to the base of the lung, helping you cough out any secretions that collect there so they don’t fester and cause infection.”
He advises taking a deep breath in through your nose, letting your belly expand as you fill your lungs; then exhaling slowly through your mouth. Do three times and cough at the end of your third exhale. “We advise doing this every hour while you’re awake.”
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.