Congratulations: Chances are that if you're reading this, and you're not a ghost, you've managed to figure out breathing. On the other hand, chances are you're also doing it wrong.
You're also suddenly aware that you're breathing now.
Take a deep breath right now. We'll wait. If you're anything like most people, you raised your shoulders a little and puffed out your chest like a pigeon in heat. You probably don't see anything wrong with using your chest to breathe, since after all, that's where your lungs are. What the hell else are you going to use? Your thighs? Well, smartass, it turns out that the muscle you're supposed to use to breathe, your diaphragm, is under your lungs and closer to your belly.
Via Wikimedia Commons
Shown here as the white mass on the bottom of this X-ray of Tom Cruise (may not actually be Tom Cruise).
When upright, most people are habitual chest breathers: We use a shallow form of respiration that makes use of only the top part of the lungs. In reality, most of the blood vessels that take up oxygen are in the bottom, neglected half. Since so much lung power is going to waste, we get less oxygen, and as a result, we're all breathing more rapidly than nature intended us to.
Chest breathing also tends to upset the blood's oxygen/carbon dioxide balance and can lead to headaches, fatigue, anxiety and even panic attacks. According to one expert, you're also potentially suffering from sweaty palms, difficulty relaxing, heightened pain perception and general fatigue.
Or as most people call it -- a "first date."
So how the hell are we meant to do it?
It turns out that breathing is one area in which babies are much smarter than you. Babies use a deeper type of respiration called abdominal breathing, which strengthens and makes full use of their diaphragms. It's only as we grow older that we revert to the more inefficient style. Luckily, you can train your body to go back to breathing properly, and over time, you can even breathe abdominally in your sleep.
Not to be confused with snoring, which is just breathing abominably.
To practice it, try to "inflate" your stomach as you breathe in, while keeping your chest relatively still. Then contract your abdominal muscles on the exhale. Not only will this give you more oxygen per breath, it will eventually strengthen the diaphragm. A stronger diaphragm means you get more oxygen with each breath, so your brain won't need to divert any away from your muscles, meaning that you get tired less easily.
Try this now at work, and observe as people kindly give you more breathing space!
A study on cardiac patients showed that this type of breathing leads to improved exercise performance and decreased shortness of breath, and it's also been linked to lower blood pressure. This is the reason that so many coaches recommend breathing practice as a shortcut to sports-based superpowers.
"I'll have you know this exercise is recommended by my doctor."
OK, so maybe you can't handle pooping, breathing or much else that you'd think would come naturally. But surely just lying in bed every night is OK, right? So why the hell do you keep waking up at 3 a.m.? You lie there, wondering what the hell is wrong with you. Will I oversleep? you wonder. How will I find the time to sit down and poop in the morning?
"I have to remember to breathe, too. I can't deal with all this."
If this happens to you often, you're not alone. Chances are, if you mention waking up like this to your doctor, it'll be diagnosed as a "sleep disorder," and you'll be given one of the tens of millions of prescriptions for sleeping pills handed out to Americans each year. You'll pop some Ambien, only to awaken a few hours later beating up a police officer. What on earth went wrong?
To be fair, you couldn't have known that wasn't a real truncheon.
So how the hell are we meant to do it?
In this case, you're already doing it right. It's your reaction that's wrong.
The idea that an uninterrupted eight hours is the only sleep pattern natural to mankind is surprisingly recent. Before someone who wasn't Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, people in areas with more than eight hours of darkness usually slept in segments: three to five hours of sleep, an hour of wakefulness and then another three to five hour nap. The hour or so of awake time was used for quiet reflection, sex, smoking and pretty much everything except staring at the wall terrified of insomnia. In fact, this small window of consciousness was renowned as the best time for boning, as the tranquility between the first and second sleep was known as being uniquely suited to getting up to mischief with the person lying bored beside you.
This isn't compulsory.
In recent times, artificial light has pushed our normal bedtime back later and later, and this segmented sleep has been compressed into a single eight hours. Still, our brains are naturally wired for pre-light-bulb days. In a monthlong experiment, healthy subjects were given a long artificial "night" lasting 14 hours. They quickly reverted to the segmented pattern, waking up for an hour or two of "peaceful wakefulness" between two three to five hour stretches.
By the end of the experiment, all the women were pregnant.
So why do we still wake up even when we've been up until midnight watching Deadliest Warrior marathons? Well, some people tend to revert to this natural sleep cycle despite all the artificial light, especially during dark winter months. Fortunately, having this sort of technology-resistant superbrain doesn't necessarily spell disaster. According to experts, if you stay calm and allow yourself to fall back to sleep naturally rather than lying there wondering why you're awake, you usually won't see any negative effects the next day.
Unless you leave the TV on while you sleep.