How to Breathe Properly to Prevent Headaches
Right now, stop whatever it is you are doing, and ask yourself a question:
“How am I breathing right now?”
Are your breaths long, deep, slow and steady? Or are they short and shallow? Do you breathe from your diaphragm, or do you breathe from your chest?
The reality is that a lot of us breathe improperly. We pick up bad habits throughout our life, and a lot of them are ingrained when we are very young. After all, when were you taught to breathe properly? Some of us eventually pick it up in gym or theater class, or are taught the correct method by a yoga or tai chi instructor, but a lot of us never receive any training on how to breathe.
Plus, by the time someone tries to tell you the right way to do it, chances are good you have long ingrained habits which are wrong. Trying to replace those bad habits is pretty challenging, not the least because breathing is usually unconscious. We don’t think about it; we just do it.
What’s the Connection Between Breathing and Headaches? In a Word … Stress.
This is a headache blog, so you may wonder where I am going with this.
Well, the way you are breathing may impact the frequency and severity of your migraines. Why? Because how we breathe and how stressed we feel are interconnected, and stress is a migraine trigger.
Think about it—our awareness goes in two directions between body and mind. If we feel stressed emotionally, we send signals to our body. We tense up our muscles, our heart rates speed up, and we breathe shallowly and rapidly. This is especially true if you happen to suffer from an anxiety or panic disorder.
But awareness feeds back from our bodies into our minds as well. Because we associate these physical sensations with stress and anxiety, when we feel them in our bodies, our emotions get caught up in the mix. Our minds believe we must be stressed, because physically, we feel stressed.
If you breathe shallowly and rapidly, your brain unconsciously thinks, “This is something we do when we are stressed, so we must be stressed.”
Slow, deep breathing is one of the bodily functions which is traditionally trained through biofeedback.
If you are not familiar with biofeedback therapy, it is a process which uses electronic monitoring to help you to train and gain voluntary control of bodily functions which are otherwise automatic.
Biofeedback has been used successfully to treat migraines. This study found that, “both propranolol [medication] and relaxation/biofeedback have yielded a 43% reduction in migraine headache activity in the average patient.”
Nonetheless, it costs a lot of money to do biofeedback therapy.
So are you out of luck? Not at all. Another study discussed this issue, concluding that biofeedback is both time-consuming and costly, but that it “provided no additional benefit when compared to simple relaxation techniques alone” in the treatment of migraines as well as tension headaches.
That is great news, because it means that you can teach yourself how to breathe properly to de-stress and prevent migraines at home using simple techniques. You do not need to pay for biofeedback therapy!
Here is How Navy Seals Breathe to Reduce Stress
Why not learn from the pros? Navy SEALs need to learn how to breathe correctly for their very survival. Staying calm in the face of danger is a necessary part of their daily jobs.
The technique which the SEALs use is called “box breathing.”
It is referred to as “box breathing” because there are four parts:
- Start by emptying your lungs. You want to expel all of the air from your chest. Once you have done that, hold that for a count of four.
- Next, inhale through your nose. Do this for four counts as well.
- Now, hold the air inside your lungs, again for four counts.
- Finally, release your breath through your nose for four counts.
Obviously it would be unnatural to breathe like this all of the time, but you can do this as a relaxation technique. It works well if you do box breathing for at least five minutes, but you can go as long as 20 minutes.
Once you get it down, you can do it when you need to throughout the day at shorter intervals. So say for example that you realize you are breathing rapidly or you are really stressed out about something, and you only have a couple of minutes to try and relax. You can just do a “spot” drill which lasts one or two minutes.
A couple of things to note:
- Always breathe through your nose, not your mouth.
- Make sure you are not clamping down when you are holding your breath. The goal is not to create pressure inside your lungs or windpipe. You want the feeling in your lungs to be open and expansive.
What is really cool about this practice is that you can do it anywhere! No one will know you are doing it. Try it out when you are waiting in line at the grocery store, sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, or waiting for a slow, stressful meeting at work to conclude. Try it in the car at the stoplight. Do it before you exercise or go to bed.
There are a couple more things which are important to note here.
The first is that a practice like this is not going to make a difference overnight. You cannot just do it for a few minutes a couple of times and expect ongoing results.
You need to practice it regularly and turn it into a habit—something you can call on whenever you need it.
If you do it often enough, you should eventually start to ingrain it. When you feel yourself getting stressed or breathing too rapidly, it should kick in automatically and you will start breathing more slowly and deeply.
Again, this will not start right away. You will probably need to practice box breathing for weeks or even months to get the full benefits.
The second thing I want to mention is that you should learn to breathe from your diaphragm—and that deserves a whole section.
How Can You Breathe From Your Diaphragm?
Your diaphragm is the most effective muscle for breathing.
Yet most of us breathe from our chests, not our diaphragms.
If you breathe from your diaphragm, you can strengthen it, reducing your breathing rate and oxygen demand.
While it may feel like extra work at first, ultimately it will actually reduce the amount of energy it takes to breathe.
It is easiest to learn how to do this lying down. Bend your knees, and make sure you have comfortable support for your head and neck. If you need to, you can slip a pillow under your knees for extra leg support.
Now, place one hand just under your ribcage. Place the other on your upper chest.
Breathe in slowly through your nose. While you do this, focus on your hands. Is the hand positioned on your chest moving? Try to reduce this motion as much as possible. You want your chest to be relatively still.
You should feel and see the expansion in your stomach. That hand should rise slightly as you inhale, and fall as you exhale. While exhaling, your chest should again remain relatively stationary.
Once you learn the diaphragm breathing technique lying down, you can start practicing it sitting up in a chair. You can then progress to doing it while you are standing.
As with box breathing, you can do this for five minutes several times a day. You can combine it with box breathing as well. Lie down, inhale for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, release for four seconds, and hold your lungs at empty for four seconds. Do all of that from your diaphragm, not your chest. Then repeat.
You should find that this is actually significantly easier when you are breathing from your diaphragm than it is when you are breathing from your chest. Since you require less oxygen and energy breathing this way, it is easier to hold your breath and slow it down.
Something as Simple as Breathing Right Can Reduce Your Migraine Pain
If you make a regular practice out of breathing like this, you will learn how to slow your breathing and deepen it throughout the day. This means you are less likely to trigger your brain into thinking you are stressed when you are not. It also means that you are less likely to manifest real stress in your body through rapid breathing, tension, or a racing heart.
The result is that you will actually gradually be less stressed. And when you are less stressed, you get fewer migraines. So give it a try, and remember to stick with it for at least a few weeks. Hopefully you will see a significant reduction in your migraines along with some overall improvements in your psychological and physical health and well-being!