Is Over-breathing Contagious?

Family As A Breathing Unit: Synchronization Of Breathing

What kind of day did Joe have today? A colleague had a family emergency and Joe’s work doubled. He had to operate equipment that he did not know well, and he was afraid he might break it, or, even worse, might injure himself. Stressful! Very stressful! It was no surprise that he craved junk food and ended up devouring a cheeseburger at McDonald’s. During this lunch, he talked almost non-stop to his co-workers. Must be some kind of anxiety! Joe thought. He was over-breathing. Hyperventilating!

His wife, Liz, had a wonderful afternoon doing Hatha yoga at a gym. She went to a steam room afterward. She had started her day with a glass of fresh carrot juice and did not eat anything else during the day. This evening, she was simply feeling great!

Now, Joe and Liz are home. Joe’s chest is moving up and down, driven by his heavy breathing. Obviously, he is hyperventilating—a result of stress, tiredness, over-talking, over-eating and consumption of heavy, animal-based food. Liz is feeling peaceful and relaxed.

Joe is anxious to share his experience with his wife. I really need to tell you what happened today. Liz is willing to listen and reflect.

The conversation is long but goes rather well; at the end of it, Joe is feeling much calmer and better. The only problem is that Liz is not!

Now, her chest is moving, actively displaying the obvious signs of anxiety and hyperventilation. Could over-breathing be contagious? she is wondering.

How Synchronization of Breathing Works

My primary breathing teacher, Ludmila Buteyko, repeatedly told me, If you want to help your client, start reducing your own breathing. Many years of my work as a Breathing Normalization Specialist have proved that Ludmila was right. In a student-teacher relationship, breathing often becomes synchronized. By simply breathing gentler and less, a practitioner can help their client suffering from hyperventilation to calm down his or her over-breathing and consequently feel better.

Of course, this works not only for a student-teacher relationship but also for all kinds of human relationships.

Imagine a political rally where a crowd chants, Lock her up! Lock her up! Their faces are red. Their emotions are strong. Their breathing is heavy. They are over-breathing. Hatred creates hyperventilation.

I did not develop this concept; Dr. Buteyko did. He believed that the best antidote for hyperventilation was love and altruism. Anyway, let’s return to this angry crowd. What happens if a calm person joins it?

A friend of mine once answered this question by sharing this story. He told me that last year he was driving through a city but had to stop due to a huge traffic jam caused by a Trump political rally. Out of curiosity, my friend, a meditation teacher, and a democrat decided to join this political gathering. He parked his car and entered a large hall containing hundreds of people.

To his surprise, an hour later, he had to make a conscious effort to subdue his urge to start hating everything he loved. He told me that he wanted to become one with the crowd. Why? I assume that one of the reasons was that his breathing rhythm became synchronized with the breathing rhythms of other bodies around. People in the hall were screaming, Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up! This mantra was unifying everybody’s breathing patterns, making emotions stronger, and my friend was influenced by it.

It seems to me that this knowledge about the synchronization of breathing was well known and well used by old spiritual traditions. Imagine a gathering of Christians, for example, holding hands and singing uplifting prayers together. Imagine a mass of Buddhist monks, simultaneously chanting aspirations, wishing happiness to all sentient beings without any exceptions. If a stranger joined one of these crowds, most likely, his breathing patterns would become slower, gentler, and quieter, and as a result, he would feel better.

Synchronization Recognized In Scientific Research As Beneficial

The good news is that now modern science is discovering this wisdom of breathing. Recently, the University of Colorado at Boulder released the results of scientific research, which shows that empathetic partners synchronize their respiratory and heart rates, which could have an analgesic effect. When a male partner holds the hand of a woman in pain (for example, when she is giving birth), her pain dissipates. Scientists are acknowledging that interpersonal synchronization has a profound effect on our wellbeing.

Now, that we know about it, what shall we do? My answer is, take responsibility for your breathing. Hyperventilation not only affects your health, but it can also affect the health of everyone around you.

Dr. Novozhilov, one of the co-creators of the Buteyko method, told me that no matter how high a child’s Control Pause becomes during re-training of his or her breathing, it will go down if this child is exposed to hyperventilation of his parents. By hyperventilating, we are not only limiting our own chances of health improvement, but also our loved ones, and even the chances of strangers we meet in a supermarket.

Of course, it’s normal for a husband to share his feelings with his wife, but what could our fictional Joe have done if he had been aware of interpersonal synchronization and decided to take responsibility for his breathing?

To h*ll with the cravings! I am not going to eat a cheeseburger for lunch, he decides. He knows that this food would only lessen his Control Pause, which already has been negatively impacted by stress. Eating that cheeseburger could only make him feel worse. So instead of chatting with co-workers, he goes for a walk. While exercising, he periodically stops his breathing just for a couple of seconds or so. By the end of his lunchtime, he is feeling less angry about the situation and less anxious.

When he comes home, he decides to take a warm, relaxing bath before talking with his wife. In the bath, he is deliberately slowing down his breathing, imagining that he is inhaling the sweet smell of freshly cut grass. Then he starts gently humming, calming down his breathing and his mind. After his bath, he measures his Control Pause: it’s 13 seconds higher than it was before he entered his home. Hurray! He is feeling much better and is ready to talk to his wife without stealing her peace and composure. Now, it’s not a problem if their breathing patterns become synchronized. Liz is a lucky woman!

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