Retrain How You Breathe

Starting with the first reports of breathing difficulties among people who contracted COVID-19 and extending now to those wearing masks to limit the risk of acquiring or transmitting the virus, the ability to breathe normally has become a common concern. Some worry: Are we taking in enough oxygen to adequately supply our muscles, organs and especially our brains? Are the masks we wear interfering with our breathing? This is especially challenging for people who must wear masks throughout their workday, as well as those with pre-existing respiratory problems and people with poor hearing who now struggle to participate in mask-muffled conversations without the added assist of lip reading. Given that most of us take about 25,000 breaths a day and breathing properly is critical to how well our bodies function, we should try to get the most benefit we can from this life-sustaining activity, with or without a mask.

Breathing properly keeps the body in acid-base balance, which enables tissues to get the amount of oxygen they need to function optimally. This balance is achieved by maintaining an ideal level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood. Too little CO2, which can happen when breathing is rapid and shallow, impedes the release of oxygen to body tissues and can result in feelings of anxiety, irritability, fatigue and lack of focus. Rapid, shallow breathing keeps the body in a high state of alert and engages the sympathetic nervous system, an adaptation that is useful in times of danger but counterproductive to feeling calm and relaxed the rest of the time.

Even during normal times, many people breathe too fast and through their mouths, perhaps because of chronic stress or noses made stuffy by allergies or a deviated septum. A rapid, shortened breathing cycle uses muscles in the neck and chest instead of the diaphragm. Lack of diaphragmatic breathing makes it harder to mentally relax. Without very much effort, you can retrain how you breathe — with or without a mask.

Lie on your back, knees bent, and breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose as your belly rises but your chest remains still. Then tighten your abdominal muscles and exhale through pursed lips. Doing five minutes of respiratory muscle training every morning and every night can help you learn to breathe more effectively at all times without having to think about it. Having stronger respiratory muscles can make breathing through a mask less challenging.

While more research on the possible effects of masks on breathing patterns is needed, in addition to respiratory training, some simple steps may help make wearing a mask easier. Just before putting on your mask, take five “quality” breaths. With each breath, inhale through the nose for four seconds, exhale through the mouth for six seconds, then rest for two seconds. Repeat these five breaths as soon as you put on the mask, and again after you remove it. If, for example, you are a teacher, medical worker or checkout clerk who must wear a mask for an extended period, take periodic breaks when you can safely remove the mask and breathe normally.

For additional information regarding respiratory muscle training, contact our Speech-Language Pathology department at (386) 774-9880, option # 6.

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