Support your lungs with deep breathing exercises

Healthy Human Lungs 2d illustrationThe World Health Organization says about 80% of people with COVID-19 recover without needing any special treatment. But one person in six becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing.

Professor John Wilson, president-elect of the Royal Australian College of Physicians and a respiratory physician says that people develop a fever and cough when the infection reaches the air passages that conduct air from the lungs to the outside. If it gets worse, the infection moves to the end of the air passages. In an article in “The Guardian,” Wilson explains “If they become infected they respond by pouring out inflammatory material into the air sacs that are at the bottom of our lungs.”

If the air sacs then become inflamed, the lungs fill up with fluid and inflammatory cells, which results in pneumonia. This condition severely impacts the body’s ability to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. And coronavirus pneumonia affects all of the lungs, instead of just small parts.

I don’t know whether the condition of a relatively healthy person’s lungs is a factor in whether or not you would get pneumonia from the COVID-19 virus, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to paying attention to how you breathe. It’s always a good idea, but it’s more important now than ever.

Breathing is something most of us take for granted.  In fact, the average person breathes 1,261,440,000 (one and a quarter billion) times in a lifetime without thinking about it.  Breathing is so vital to your overall health and well-being that Dr. Andrew Weil, best-selling author, educator and practicing M.D. says: “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.”

Slow, deep breathing is probably the single best anti-stress medicine we have, ” says James Gordon, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington.”  When you bring air down into the lower portion of the lungs, where oxygen exchange is most efficient, everything changes.  Heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind calms.  Breathing this way also gives people a sense of control over their body and their emotions that is extremely therapeutic,” says Gordon.1

Most of us do not breathe correctly.  Typically our “normal” breathing is shallow. “The result is a vicious cycle, where stress prompts shallow breathing, which in turn creates more stress,” says Gordon.2

Abdominal breathing and pranyama (yoga breathing exercises) are natural, easy ways to increase your energy and feel more relaxed because they accelerate the intake of oxygen.

Here are some breathing exercises that might just help strengthen your lungs and help you to relax during this stressful time.

Abdominal Breathing

Abdominal breathing is done from the depths of the belly, rather than breathing from your chest and nose.  It is a simple method of relaxation that can be done anywhere, at any time.

  1. Sit or lie down with your hands on your stomach.
  2. Inhale slowly through your nose, filling your stomach and then your chest.  Your abdomen should rise as if you’re inflating a balloon.  Allow it to swell and return to normal.  Your chest should move only slightly.
  3. Try to get a rhythm going, counting to 4 on the in-breath and to 8 on the out-breath.
  4. Exhale as slowly as possible through slightly parted lips.
  5. Practice this for about 10 minutes.

Alternate nostril breathing (pranyama)

You’ll notice that one of the nostrils is more open than the other.  Don’t mind this, it’s normal.

  1. Close the right nostril with your thumb.
  2. Breathe in through your left nostril.
  3. Close the left nostril with your third and fourth fingers.
  4. Breathe out through your right nostril.
  5. Close the right nostril with your thumb.
  6. Breathe in through your left nostril.
  7. Repeat the entire sequence and continue for 3-5 minutes.

The effects from these breathing exercises are cumulative, so try to practice them a few minutes each day.  You’ll experience a more settled feeling immediately, and after a week or two you may realize that the mind chatter has quieted down, and that physical tension has diminished too.

Reverend Sharon Shanthi Behl wrote a chapter called “Breath Work” for my book Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia. This excerpt includes a breathing exercise you can do with a care partner who gets agitated, as well as for yourself.

“When we say we are tired and have no energy, what we are really saying is that our energy is blocked. We need to breathe to live, and how we breathe can profoundly affect our degree of physical well-being; it can regulate our emotions, and it can deplete, sustain, or increase our experience of aliveness.

“Prana is constantly fluctuating and moving throughout the universe. According to yoga philosophy, it flows throughout the living body in exquisitely determined whirlpools and currents. The wonderment of the yogic system is asana and pranayama practice allows our innate energy currents to flow as nature intended.

Here is a lovely pranayama practice to use with an agitated individual who is “sundowning.” You may be familiar with this phenomenon. Mayo Clinic clinical neuropsychologist, Glenn Smith, Ph.D., describes sundowning as a state of confusion at the end of the day and into the night. Sundowning isn’t a disease, but a symptom that often occurs in people with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Smith lists several factors that may aggravate late-day confusion including fatigue, low lighting, increased shadows, and the disease’s disruption of the body’s internal clock. You might find that focusing your loved one’s attention on this practice calms them, and you. ”

Read these instructions slowly out loud as you demonstrate the movement.

  1. Let us do the Butterfly Breath together.  
  2. Face palms toward the heart center at center of the chest.  Interlace the fingers with thumb pointing up to the ceiling.  Place hands on the chest and keep your awareness at this heart center as you breathe deeply and slowly in and out the nose.
  3. Can you feel your heart beating? Can you feel how much you are loved?
  4. Notice the rise and fall of your breath. Feel the warmth of your hands on your chest.  

Add this option for yourself:

  1. Notice any feelings or thoughts as you breathe naturally.
  2. As you breathe in, see your feelings and thoughts like bubbles of air rising from the bottom of a lake.
  3. Breathe out and imagine the bubbles silently bursting as they reach the water’s surface.

If you are a caregiver, please remember to take care of yourself so you can take care of your loved one(s).

References

  1. Krucoff, Carol. “Doctors Empowering Patients by Promoting Belly Breathing,” Washington Post, June 2000.
  2. Ibid

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

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