Breathing is susceptible to daily stressors, and it can easily become dysfunctional without realizing. Those big breaths we think are good for us, ironically deliver less oxygen to the body. Here are five simple self-tests to help you gain insight into your own breathing habits.
Test #1: Observe Your Breathing Pattern at Rest
Find a quiet spot and sit calmly in a chair with your feet planted on the ground. Close your eyes and follow the movements of your own breathing for a few minutes. What are you able to recognize?
- Size: big or small
- Sound: loud or quiet
- Speed: rapid or slow
- Effort required: more or less
- After the exhale: quick breath in or a pause for 1 – 3 seconds
If your breathing is noticeable and requires effort, it is likely that you are breathing too much air for your body’s needs at rest. Healthy breathing is small, quiet, slow, effortless and has a natural pause after each exhale.
Test #2: High-Low Breathing
Continue sitting in the chair. Place one hand on the upper chest (top hand) and the other on the belly (bottom hand). Close your eyes again. Inhale and exhale “normally” 5 times, paying attention to the motion of your hands. What did you notice during the inhale portion of the breath?
- Did the top hand move first?
- Did the top hand move upward toward the chin?
- Did the top hand move significantly more than the bottom hand?
- Did the bottom hand move in during the inhalation and out during the exhalation?
If you answered YES to any of the above, this indicates a dysfunctional breathing pattern. With healthy breathing at rest, the top hand should remain quiet during the inhale. The bottom hand is where the movement should happen, OUT during the inhale and IN during the exhale.
Test #3: Mouth vs Nasal Breathing
Where is your tongue sitting right now? Is it resting behind your bottom teeth? If yes, then you are likely a mouth breather.
Are you a mouth breather at night? You’ll know because your spouse or significant other has probably woken you up to tell you to stop snoring! Other signs include waking up with a dry mouth, bad breath or a blocked nose.
As a general rule, both the inhale and exhale at rest are done through the nose, lips gently closed, and with the tongue resting against the upper 2/3 of the soft palate.
Test #4: Postural Check-Up
Which one do you look like? Good posture – tall, lengthened spine with relaxed shoulders – enables the use of diaphragm which promotes healthy breathing.
Poor posture – slouching, rounded shoulders and forward head – is commonly associated with mouth breathing; shallow, upper chest breathing.
This leads to overuse of the accessory breathing muscles causing headaches, shoulder pain, neck stiffness and jaw tension.
Test #5: Control Pause
Time to check your breath hold and sensitivity to carbon dioxide. Do NOT perform this if you have severe asthma, uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, panic attacks, migraines or are pregnant (first trimester). Grab your iPhone or a watch to measure your breath hold time. Sit quietly for a few minutes before starting the test.
- Take a normal breath IN and OUT through the nose. (Tip: avoid over-exhaling and leave some air in your lungs.)
- Pinch your nose with your fingers and hold your breath.
- Time the number of seconds until you feel the first definite desire to breathe. (Tip: stop when you feel twitching in the throat or an involuntary jerk in your diaphragm.)
- Release your nose and breathe in calmly through the nose.
Did you take several big breaths to recover? If YES, then you held your breath for too long and the measurement will be inaccurate. Sit quietly and try again. Your breathing should recover to a normal rate within one breath.
A breath hold of less than 10 seconds is suboptimal. You are likely experiencing many symptoms of dysfunctional breathing such as coughing, wheezing, nasal congestion, snoring, yawning, poor control of asthma, anxiety, fatigue, and poor concentration. If it is less than 20, symptoms will be significantly reduced but still not optimal. Over 40 is considered normal, functional breathing.
How did things go? If you want to learn how to improve your breathing, check in with me!
Remember it’s always easier to create new habits than break old ones.