The average person breathes in and out 22,000 times a day, so it follows that how we breathe affects the balance of our nervous system, our digestive system, and even our posture. But the truth is, many of us breathing incorrectly and need to re-learn the proper techniques in order to course-correct. New York-based author and clinical psychologist Dr. Belisa Vranich says a proper breathing technique is absolutely necessary — and potentially life-changing.
Vranich has fixed the unhealthy respiratory patterns of countless clients (including 9/11 first responders suffering from PTSD), helping them understand how simple exercises and tweaks to their breathing style can alter their digestion, posture, stress level, and mood. Here, she gives us the ins and outs of her philosophy.
About 12 years ago, I was grinding my teeth and I figured my jaw was dysfunctional. But my dentist took a look and said, "Oh, you're grinding because of stress.” I was shocked—I thought I thrived with stress, that it fueled me. A friend recommended breathing exercises, so I rolled my eyes but then tried it and was amazed. Coming from a science background, though, I wanted to get a baseline analysis of my breathing and how to make it better.
Most of the time, in respiratory health, we’re not using a functional measurement to help us understand whether we're using the right muscles. So if I say, “Take a deep breath,” you're probably going to puff up your chest and look up, right? That's not a deep breath. That's not a diaphragmatic breath.
So I researched sports science and anatomy that could help me teach breathing in a way that focused on the mechanics of the body and healing physical pain as well as mental stress. I'm a psychologist by trade, and I found that through functional breathing exercises, people in my practice could take things to the next level, in terms of understanding their next steps toward healing.
I look at breath like any other body movement. A physical therapist might watch you walk and say, “Well, your hips are like this and you're sort of leaned over to one side.” And they’d tell how that has repercussions within your entire body. Breath is the same way, except that it's internal. Then you start understanding that yes, we can be doing it wrong and even doing it badly. And that creates problems within our bodies that we don't even recognize as having been exacerbated by breathing.
One example is digestive problems. The diaphragm is a huge muscle the size of a Frisbee right over your digestive organs. When you're using it correctly, it massages your digestive organs. But if the diaphragm isn’t being used, what happens? Things come up or they stay blocked—meaning acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation. Other examples are lower back pain, stress and anxiety, and a misaligned center of balance.
The way to develop a strong respiratory system is to do the basic movement right, then strengthen the muscles around the movement. First, take my Breathing IQ. Once you get your number, you’ll also get direction for what you should be working on. Most people can change their breathing dysfunction immediately. Start doing your exercises and you’ll start feeling better at that moment. It's pretty wild.
You have to look at a person psychologically in order to help them with their breath. So you ask questions like, "When did you start bracing? When did you thinking that you needed to suck in your belly? When did you start getting so stressed that you were holding your breath?" You have to bring in psychology. There are all different types of problems and different types of breathers.
Well, breath-holders unconsciously grip the middle of their bodies. Other people hyperventilate, where they're breathing fast all day long. Some are paradoxical breathers, who breathe with their chests puffed up, the opposite of the way you're supposed to breathe. Some people hover, which means taking tiny sips of breath—you hover when you don't feel like the environment is safe. It's kind of like the breathing equivalent of tiptoeing. That’s what everyone's doing right now.
They found me, and eventually, I ended up working with people from Homeland Security, Border Patrol, SWAT, the DEA. They wanted stress reduction, because they obviously have very stressful jobs, and they also wanted endurance for their work. The newest research in breathing science shows that breathing-muscle exercises can improve your endurance, without cardio. I also work with them on resilience training and healing from post-traumatic stress. I worked with one firefighter who started failing his lung tests after 9/11. After working together, he started passing his lung tests again. But more than anything, I’m glad I was able to heal and empower him not to feel broken from that tragedy.
It becomes natural, and here’s why: You used to breathe this way. I did an informal study where I asked my teacher trainees to do assessments on 158 kids from all parts of the world—they found that the kids changed from a diaphragmatic to a vertical breath at around age 5 ½. So I'm not teaching you anything new. I'm just reminding you. And also, your diaphragm wants to breathe this way. The body wants to do this—we just all need to let it.
To learn more about Dr. Belisa Vranich's work, check out The Breathing Class. She is the author of Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health and Breathing for Warriors.